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Coronavirus: Welsh National Health Service preps Watson-powered chatbot

NHS Wales is working on a Watson-powered virtual assistant to provide information on Covid-19, with several health services worldwide also looking to Watson to provide coronavirus advice for the public and clinicians

The National Health Service Wales is working on an English and Welsh-speaking virtual assistant called CERi, which will be built using natural language processing in IBM’s Watson Health artificial intelligence (AI) engine.

CERi will be used to provide information on the Covid-19 coronavirus for healthcare workers and the general public, and with information on the prevention and treatment of coronavirus along with general information about the virus, according to IBM.

The virtual assistant, which is being implemented in conjunction with Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board, will use Watson Assistant for Citizens. 

IBM said it will be providing virtual agents free of charge for at least 90 days to governments, healthcare and academic organisations, to enable the public to quickly obtain reliable information about coronavirus – with approved guidance and local information such as links to school closings, news and documents – online or via the phone.

The Watson Assistant for Citizens uses currently available data from external sources, including guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) and local sources such as links to school closings and public websites.

It has been trained to handle 15 common queries. IBM said it has already delivered the service across the US and is in discussions globally with Czech Republic, Finland, Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK.

In the county of Otsego in New York, IBM said coronavirus-related information will be available in the next few days for citizens to help them quickly get their health and non-health-related questions answered regarding the pandemic. 

In Spain, a virtual agent built in collaboration with the Andalusian Health Service (SAS), is being used to help to respond to citizen’s queries about coronavirus via the Salud Responde app and the Public Agency for Health Emergencies (EPES) website.

“The AI solution from IBM will be a great resource for the county’s residents and will help alleviate call centre volume to allow county employees to dedicate efforts elsewhere,” said Brian Pokorny, director of Information Technologies, County of Otsego, New York. The virtual agent will be able to answer citizen’s questions such as: “How do I apply for unemployment?”

Dr Roy Vergis, a consultant at IBM Watson Health and expert on digital health for the World Health Organisation  said that over the past decade there has been an increase in the adoption and use of AI, which has helped researchers derive meaning from the huge amount of data being collected.

Discussing the coronavirus crisis, he said: “There is huge pressure with people wanting the right advice. This puts a huge burden on call handling.”

Looking beyond the coronavrus pandemic, Vergis believes there will be a change in attitude to technology. He is confident the general public will see the benefit of using technology such as virtual assistants like Watson Assistant for Citizens, to support health service contact centres, rather than reverting to visiting or calling GP surgeries.

“While helping government agencies and healthcare institutions use AI to get critical information out to their citizens remains a high priority right now, the current environment has made it clear that every business in every industry should find ways to digitally engage with their clients and employees,” said Rob Thomas, general manager of IBM data and AI.

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