Chatbots and Conversations About STDs and HIV With Young People

Chatbots, or machine-driven systems that mimic human conversation, have become popular in recent years. You have probably seen them online, answering questions and providing information. Now, researchers are studying whether chatbots can help health workers connect young people to critical HIV resources.

Launching the TelePrEP Program

LGBT teenagers and young adults have a higher chance of getting HIV, especially those in the South. While the highly effective HIV prevention medicine PrEP is available, use of the drug is low among this group.1

To address this issue, the Louisiana Department of Health launched the LA TelePrEP Program. The program uses telemedicine (electronic information and telecommunication technology for health care) to talk to teens and kids about HIV.1,2

People can call or text a local phone number to connect with a TelePrEP navigator. The navigator enrolls people in the program. They also schedule appointments, assist with lab testing and medicine delivery, and answer any questions. Enrollees speak virtually with a healthcare provider too. The provider can prescribe PrEP without needing an in-person visit.1,3

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Expanding TelePrEP through the use of a chatbot

The TelePrEP Program was launched in 2019, but engagement has been modest. Over a 2-year period, just 52 LGBTQ+ teens and young adults contacted the program.1

To help boost enrollment, program coordinators partnered with researchers to create a chatbot. The purpose of the tool, called PrEPBot, is to make it easier to enroll in the program and support navigators. The chatbot can perform many duties that ease employees' workload.1

What are chatbots?

Chatbots are automated systems that imitate how humans talk. They range from simple, scripted rule-based versions to more advanced AI-based chatbots. Complex chatbots understand natural language and offer conversational responses.1

Many businesses, including banks and e-commerce companies, use chatbots to assist with customer service. They can answer questions, schedule appointments, find services, and share information.1

Chatbots in healthcare

The healthcare industry has also adopted chatbots. The technology is used to remotely manage patients, collect data, and perform other tasks. This can free up clinicians' time to focus on other duties.1

While chatbots have become more common in healthcare, they are not used as often in HIV prevention. One notable program is a chatbot called Eli, launched in 2020 by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. Its goal is to have conversations with teens about HIV and other topics essential to healthy development. During a successful first week, Eli answered more than 150,000 questions.1

Developing a chatbot for PrEP education

Researchers working with the Louisiana Department of Health viewed Eli as a model for how text-based chatbots can quickly share private and sensitive HIV prevention information around the clock.1

Before developing the chatbot, the research team first wanted to learn more about the job duties of the TelePrEP navigators. They asked which tasks take the most time and how navigators can benefit from the help of another team member.1

Based on feedback from these conversations, researchers developed a user-friendly and accessible rule-based chatbot. They also tested the program, looking for areas of improvement, like messages that were too long or unnecessary questions. If the chatbot cannot answer a question, it directs users to a FAQ page on the TelePrEP website.1

Researchers planned to test the chatbot with live users, along with the launch of a social media campaign.1

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