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Chatbot adapted to help patients during COVID-19 pandemic

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A new healthtech chatbot, Ask Ave, originally created for cancer patients and their families, has been adapted for use to tackle people’s concerns about Covid 19.

The health chatbot, has been used by NHS Scotland, supporting more than 110,000 Covid-19 messages from concerned people during its soft launch.

The platform was created to allow anonymity to people who find talking over the phone about illness difficult, in terms of discussing their symptoms or finding the words to describe their feelings.

It has been rolled out to deal with flu immunisation and vaccine queries on the NHS Inform platform in Scotland.

Ask Ave was the brainchild of Avril Chester, who founded Cancer Central in 2018 following her battle with the disease.

She said: “We’re so pleased that we’ve been able to support our NHS colleagues at this difficult time, using concepts from our cancer chatbot to help people affected by Covid-19. Working with our technical partner Amido we have applied our joint learnings from working with Cancer Central and NHS Inform to drive growth, efficiency and innovation to Ask Ave to provide  people with a new way to quickly access reliable medical information.’’

Chester founded Cancer Central in 2018 following her own battle with breast cancer in 2015 and 2016. She noted the range of channels to find support for practical issues and services such as local societies or taxi hire to personal ones such as financial, hats or wigs.

Cancer Central won the Digital Leaders HealthTech innovation ward 2019, as a ‘cominovation’ platform: a hub where community and innovation gather to help cancer patients and their carers. To support this initiative, Ask Ave was created as a conversational search – a virtual assistant, which learns as it interacts with people.

Chester said: “At the conception stage of Cancer Central we ran a ‘hackathon’ with lots of bright minds in the technology industry asking: where shall we start and how best do we achieve the vision?

“A number of teams recommended to build a solution with a conversational search as people wish to ask questions during time of need – the Cancer Central chatbot Ask Ave was born. Ave is my nickname. I still feel very uncomfortable naming our chatbot after myself, but my board and advisory panel encouraged me to do so.’’

Cancer Central is a social enterprise built on more than 40,000 donated hours. Its goal is to become one of the leading HealthTech platforms delivering specialised online health hubs guiding people to the information they need.

Support includes: benefits advice, insurance products, counselling, complementary therapy, respite care, hats, wigs, lingerie, skincare, financial help, nutrition advice, local societies or communities, meals on wheels, books, blogs, forums, local hospital taxi services –  all based on people’s geographical location and cancer type, to provide personalised information.

Chester won the title Entrepreneur of the Year at the Women in IT Awards 2019, was named one of The 3 Digital Amigos (podcast series), is interim executive director of data & technology at the RIBA, director at Kaniave Limited and is the author of be with me, it’s c. She also documented the first year of her journey from technical executive to hopeful entrepreneur, in her book: Taking That Leap of Faith.

Ask Ave is launching in December 2020 under its own brand which was created by Design By Structure. The agency was briefed to evolve the brand’s visual identity, modernising its aesthetic, making the logo more readable. The chatbot was created with pro-bono support, engineered by Amido, hosted by Microsoft, and supported with SMS texts by Twilio.

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