Dr. Chatbot Gives Businesses Free Workplace Health Tool

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After three  months of COVID-19 lockdowns, businesses are slowly starting to open their doors and allow employees back into facilities.  While many companies are able to continue operating in a remote capacity, others need workers on-site.

At the very least, those companies need to follow a number of health and safety guidelines, which involve capacity and distancing, employee logging, education and signage, PPE and cleaning, common areas, ventilation, and more.  Many new technology solutions have become available that can make conforming to these new standards easier, as the tech community has responded rapidly with applications and hardware to support business re-opening. 

In fact, some states are requiring businesses to check employees’ health before allowing them into offices.  The fact is, though, many businesses can ill afford to pay for these solutions, especially after having been shut down for three months.

The University of Rochester’s Health Lab may have a way to help them. 

Not surprisingly, back when COVID-19 first reached the Rochester area, the University of Rochester Medical Center’s hotline was buried with incoming calls, creating a massive burden for physicians and staff.  One of the biggest problems was screening calls to differentiate people exhibiting symptoms from others who were not.  Within two days, the UR Health Lab built a chatbot that help with the screening process.  Dr. Chatbot, as it was named, was able to cut the volume of calls to the hotline in half almost immediately.

A week later, the delivered Dr. Chatbot v2, which helped the Medical Center automate daily screening of 9,000 essential employees.  This version was also able to link screening information to other databases to help the University better track employee health.

The third version of Dr. Chatbot is extending similar capabilities across 13 counties in the region, to help track the spread of the virus and give government agencies better and more specific information with which to develop ongoing strategies and policies, including re-opening plans.

Now, the open source software is being made available cost-free to businesses nationwide. 

“Dr. Chatbot’s use in the ROC COVID health screening tool is playing a critical role in tracking and slowing the spread of the virus in the Rochester and Finger Lakes region.  The U of R’s generous decision to make Dr. Chatbot technology available to employers can go a long way in helping them foster a healthy workforce.”

Bob Duffy , President & CEO, Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce

The platform provide an easy way for employees to provide information to their employers and, likewise, a simple yet effective tool to allow businesses to manage workplace safety.  Duffy says it takes less than five seconds to submit his information each day.

Dr. Chatbot’s open source code provides a very simple process for monitoring employee health:

  • A simple user interface accessible from an employee’s smartphone, tablet, PC or other device;
  • Seven avatars representing a range of friendly onscreen health professionals who conduct the daily symptom checks on a rotating basis;
  • A survey with questions determined by individual employers, including whether employees are exhibiting any of the known COVID-19 symptoms;
  • Depending on survey answers, employees receive a green check mark if they are cleared for work or a red “X” requiring other action.  Employers will determine the call to action, which could be to call their manager, check with a health professional or get a COVID-19 test;
  • Daily email or text messages to remind employees to complete the brief survey questions.

The open source code is available through GitHub.  Corporate IT departments and software developers are able to modify or enhance the code to meet their specific needs.

Dr. Chatbot certainly is not the first solution to enable simple employee screening.  What’s important, though, is not only that it’s been successfully used at some scale already, but that it give employers on tight budgets access to an important tool to promote workplace safety at a time when many workers are naturally concerned, but have to return to work to support their families.

“Based on tremendous interest in our technology from other universities and employers of all types, we realize that our tool can be beneficial far beyond our institution in fighting the spread of COVID-19. We are giving away our code for free to all employers who can use it as a way of giving back during this health crisis.”

Stephen Dewhurst, Ph.D., vice dean for research at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry

While the UR Health Lab initially developed Dr. Chatbot to screen calls for its medical center, it responded quickly to evolving needs as the pandemic continued to spread, and now that businesses are starting to re-open, is providing them a tool to do so safely.