Technical Aspects of Developing Chatbots for Medical Applications: Scoping Review

J Med Internet Res. 2020 Dec 18;22(12):e19127. doi: 10.2196/19127.


Background: Chatbots are applications that can conduct natural language conversations with users. In the medical field, chatbots have been developed and used to serve different purposes. They provide patients with timely information that can be critical in some scenarios, such as access to mental health resources. Since the development of the first chatbot, ELIZA, in the late 1960s, much effort has followed to produce chatbots for various health purposes developed in different ways.

Objective: This study aimed to explore the technical aspects and development methodologies associated with chatbots used in the medical field to explain the best methods of development and support chatbot development researchers on their future work.

Methods: We searched for relevant articles in 8 literature databases (IEEE, ACM, Springer, ScienceDirect, Embase, MEDLINE, PsycINFO, and Google Scholar). We also performed forward and backward reference checking of the selected articles. Study selection was performed by one reviewer, and 50% of the selected studies were randomly checked by a second reviewer. A narrative approach was used for result synthesis. Chatbots were classified based on the different technical aspects of their development. The main chatbot components were identified in addition to the different techniques for implementing each module.

Results: The original search returned 2481 publications, of which we identified 45 studies that matched our inclusion and exclusion criteria. The most common language of communication between users and chatbots was English (n=23). We identified 4 main modules: text understanding module, dialog management module, database layer, and text generation module. The most common technique for developing text understanding and dialogue management is the pattern matching method (n=18 and n=25, respectively). The most common text generation is fixed output (n=36). Very few studies relied on generating original output. Most studies kept a medical knowledge base to be used by the chatbot for different purposes throughout the conversations. A few studies kept conversation scripts and collected user data and previous conversations.

Conclusions: Many chatbots have been developed for medical use, at an increasing rate. There is a recent, apparent shift in adopting machine learning-based approaches for developing chatbot systems. Further research can be conducted to link clinical outcomes to different chatbot development techniques and technical characteristics.

Keywords: chatbots; conversational agents; medical applications; scoping review; technical aspects.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Communication
  • Humans
  • Mobile Applications / standards*
  • Research Design