At Houston Methodist, conversational AI improves the call center – and boosts vaccine distribution

Photo: Houston Methodist

Prior to the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine being available, Houston Methodist knew it was going to have significant challenges in managing a perceived tsunami of phone calls from patients and the general public.


With predictions of increased volume reaching 300-400%, Houston Methodist leadership needed a solution that would manage the flood of vaccine-related phone calls without impacting usual operations. Expanding head count in existing call centers could not be achieved in a reasonable amount of time and was financially prohibitive. Outsourcing to external contract call centers risked losing control of the patient experience and was also financially challenging.

“We needed a cost-effective solution that could not only manage the flood of vaccine-related phone calls without impacting our usual operations, but most importantly, ensure every patient is set on a positive path,” said Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Houston Methodist.


Houston Methodist decided to go with the Syllable Voice Assistant, conversational artificial intelligence that answers every call received by a hospital and offers patients automated workflows and self-service options whenever possible.

Staff saw the opportunity to use this solution to address three significant needs for Houston Methodist as they sought out a scalable solution to address this impending influx of COVID-19 vaccine-related calls.

“First, we would be able to automatically direct eligible patients to schedule a vaccination appointment through a self-service scheduling option,” Schwartz said. “Second, it could automate answers to questions we knew we would receive at a high frequency, such as inquiries related to vaccine eligibility and safety. Finally, it could dynamically scale to accommodate fluctuations in call volume and answer every call without impacting our usual operations.”

Syllable also helped the healthcare provider organization standardize its approach.

“We placed the conversational AI not only in our vaccine hotline, but also in all hospital operator or other important patient-facing lines,” she noted. “Whether that’s vaccine eligibility or self-service Q&A, we were consistent in our patient-facing telephone lines.”


Syllable integrated with existing platforms for patient authentication and scheduling to create a comprehensive, end-to-end solution that could confirm eligibility and drive conversion, Schwartz said.

The health system established a COVID-19 vaccine hotline, which it shared with vaccine-eligible patients through direct outreach efforts. The conversational AI served as frontline triage for all incoming calls to confirm vaccine eligibility and address frequently asked questions.

“The voice assistant identifies eligible callers and enables the caller to immediately schedule their vaccination appointment through a unique self-service scheduling link managed by CareSense, a patient authentication solution,” Schwartz explained. “Our scheduling software, BlockIt, subsequently committed the scheduled appointment to our EHR. Patients also are offered the option to schedule their appointment with a live agent or nurse if they prefer.”


The Syllable technology increased Houston Methodist’s capacity to answer incoming calls without hiring additional staff.

“We were able to ensure every single call was answered, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Schwartz noted. “In the first month of vaccine distribution, the voice assistant answered about 9,000 calls on a typical weekday and up to 3,500 calls an hour at peak times. 91% of calls received by our COVID-19 vaccine hotline were resolved by Syllable’s automated and self-service workflows.

“We also saw excellent scheduling conversion,” she continued. “In the first month of deployment, 75% of patients checked their vaccine eligibility and were able to schedule a vaccine appointment, if eligible. We were quickly able to ramp up vaccine delivery, with 4,000 vaccinations delivered per day across the Houston Methodist health system in the first month.”

Houston Methodist ranked No. 1 in the state of Texas in vaccine delivery, providing more vaccines than any other health system in the state of Texas, she added.

“Since launching our COVID-19 vaccine hotline to the public in January, the voice assistant has answered half a million calls and triaged almost 250,000 eligible patients to scheduling options,” she reported. “Houston Methodist has delivered more than 724,000 vaccines to date. We’ve been thrilled with the results of this program, and recently expanded our work with Syllable.”

The AI voice assistant now answers all inbound calls to Houston Methodist’s main call center and its IT help desk.


“Innovation is at the heart of everything we do at Houston Methodist, and our overarching approach to innovation depends on collaboration with technology companies that value a similar forward-thinking view on patient-centered solutions,” Schwartz advised. “Digital technologies aren’t meant to solve all the challenges in a hospital setting, but where these applications make sense, where they provide tangible benefits, we want to do what is right for our patients while still maintaining our high level of quality care.

“One of the tenets of Houston Methodist’s Center of Innovation is to ‘succeed fast and fail fast,'” she continued. “We realize we cannot keep up with the fast-paced changes in healthcare if we don’t try. I would encourage other healthcare provider organizations exploring a similar technology to challenge what is expected and ask, ‘How does this benefit the patient?'”

Digitization and automation – at large, not just in call centers – results in a large influx of data on consumer behaviors and patterns and gives further insights to issues or challenges patients face, she said.

“Data is valuable only if you can drive insights, but more important, if you can act on it and make patients’ lives easier,” she concluded. “Technology enablement is only the start of that journey; you really need to put patients at the center of everything to make an impact.”

Twitter: @SiwickiHealthIT
Email the writer: [email protected]
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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