Using conversational AI to support employees’ psychological needs

How Eastern Health provides anonymous mental health services at scale

By | 4 minute read | November 1, 2021

Eastern Health and Watson Assistant

Healthcare workers put on a brave face each day to serve those who are suffering, and in doing so they often put aside their personal self-care. The pressures of the job can lead to mental health issues, which are sadly compounded by caregivers’ feelings of guilt around needing care themselves. Sometimes, out of embarrassment, caregivers won’t seek help. It’s a psychological bind that requires a new kind of solution.

The Eastern Regional Health Authority (Eastern Health) is the largest integrated health authority in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Like all healthcare organizations, Eastern Health is dealing with a global pandemic that not only impacts the physical health of its infected victims, but the emotional and mental health of its own employees, doctors and the families they rely on for support. To help combat the psychological effects of the pandemic among healthcare workers, Collette Smith and her team at Eastern Health are using conversational AI.

Smith serves as a vice president of clinical services and human resources and as chief nursing officer at Eastern Health. Her role sits between the clinical services and the human resources function, so she is uniquely able to perceive the needs of healthcare workers and to find new solutions to their most pressing challenges. During an ongoing pandemic that has left many feeling anxious, afraid, and isolated, demand for mental health services often outpaces supply. When people are looking for mental health services, they often don’t know exactly what they need. They require a guiding hand to help them find the right help. But with such human resources already strained by the pandemic, it can be difficult for healthcare providers to scale up pathways to services.

That’s where conversational AI comes in. In 2020, Eastern Health launched EVA (Employee Virtual Assistant), a tool that provides Eastern Health employees, physicians and their families with access to mental health support and resources, 24/7. Eva uses plain language to speak to people seeking help, to guide them toward the right resources, whether that’s self-help, virtual services, or even immediate emergency care. As a bonus, EVA helps employees seek help while maintaining social distancing.

“We’ve developed a new pathway and a very safe environment for people to reach out and navigate our system,” says Smith. “It’s been a godsend for our team in getting the immediate support that they need, safely.”

EVA allows for what Smith calls “peer-to-peer support,” enabling employees who need help to find other employees who can give it. “It virtually puts help at the fingertips of each individual, each team member, each group, each person that’s looking out for their colleagues, at any moment,” says Smith. “Whether it’s in the middle of an event, or whether we just want to check in and keep people healthy. It’s opened up the doorway for people to get assistance for each other.”

EVA also helps resolve the hesitancy that some people feel about revealing their mental health issues. Some people are more comfortable revealing their struggles with a non-human bot. Watson’s robust privacy controls help assure users that their confidentiality will be protected every step of the way.

When interacting with EVA, users remain anonymous, a feature that Smith implemented intentionally. Users are not tracked, and the bot doesn’t know who it’s speaking with. Instead, Eastern Health tries to collect as much information about the user experience as it can in other ways, like soliciting voluntary feedback.

“The feedback we’re getting is absolutely incredible,” says Smith. “People feel safe. People feel that the mechanisms and the areas that they need to focus on are really there and available to them. And also that the organization cares for them.”

Powered by Watson, EVA is more than just a chatbot. The virtual assistant can learn, then teach what it knows to Smith’s team.

“The more experiences EVA has, the more EVA learns, and the more EVA learns, the more we learn,” says Smith. “The pathways that people are asking about are being progressively developed. We had lots of expertise built into the outcomes and advice we’re giving, but the more questions that were asked, the more we realized the programming that we still needed.” Eastern Health can build out EVA’s corpus of knowledge by looking at those gaps and filling them in.

Based on these findings, Smith’s team is now building programming for all kinds of employee queries outside the realm of mental health.

“I think it’s pretty neat that people are coming to EVA now for things not even related directly to psychological health, but also other needs that they’re having,” says Smith. “And as an organization, we’re learning from that too, because people are seeing EVA as the go-to spot.”

Smith is already looking to expand EVA beyond Eastern Health to its partners across the province and beyond.

“The intelligence that we have built here is very easily transferred to any organization. And other organizations can just build their pathways on the programming that they have. Our next step is to share, share, share the success that we’ve had, and then build on the other needs that we’re seeing outside of psych safety.”

It’s a broad vision, but one that started small and grew incrementally. Smith encourages organizations not to over-plan, but to take small steps and gather knowledge along the way.

“We’re learning each and every day as we go through this,” she says. “It doesn’t need to be perfect when you launch it. It’ll teach you as much as you’re taking away from the programming. So just jump in and enjoy.”