Post-Pandemic: Enough of Telehealth, Instacart, Chatbots?

Article By : Rebecca Day

It’s hard to know at this stage how Covid-19 will change life as we know it, but it’s certain technology will be at the epicenter of change.

It’s hard to know at this stage how Covid-19 pandemic will change life as we know it, but it’s certain technology will be at the epicenter of change. As always with tech, some of that will be good, some annoying and other yet to be determined.

After two months on lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, New York City is gradually reopening, along with much of the world. Very gradually, that is, and the powers that be keep reminding us how far we are from life as we knew it just 3 months ago.

I elbow-bumped the new doorman in my building to congratulate him on his promotion, something I thought was silly the first time I heard of it as an alternative to the handshake. If you had told me a year ago I would touch elbows with someone as a sincere way to connect — while wearing a mask on a 90-degree day — I would have passed off the idea as this side of bonkers. Will we ever shake hands again, or will that gesture seem as dated a year from now as dialing a telephone?

Covid-19 accelerates telehealth
Covid-19 accelerates telehealth adoption

When it’s time for me to make a doctor’s appointment, will I automatically hop on the subway and take the half-hour trip door-to-door, or will I be just as happy — or happier — to take the telemedicine route? Checkups, for now, still require a trip to the doctor for hands-on work, but medical telehealth visits over the past two months — when doctors’ offices were closed during shelter-at-home orders — proved to be a very efficient way to assess symptoms and handle prescriptions. Have thermometer, no need to travel.

The tech industry has been talking about the future of telehealth for a while; the pandemic helped kick it into a higher gear. Virtual visits save time and money; my insurance company seems to be a big fan. I think I sensed that my doctor was a little more relaxed during my last consult, too.

The Apple Watch can monitor the heart: If your heart rate remains above or below a chosen beats per minute while you appear to have been inactive for 10 minutes, you can have the watch notify you. 9to5Macreports technology is in the works for the Watch to detect blood oxygen levels next. I measure my blood oxygen level often with an unwieldly pulse oximeter since I had Covid-19 in March; I’ll be happy to offload that task to a watch.

Heart-rate monitoring features in Fitbit’s Charge and the Apple Watch use light and sensors to measure blood flow; software translates the data to beats per minute. There are limits, noted a 2018 Washington Post article: “Users should not expect medical-grade accuracy from these consumer gadgets, experts say, but they ought to be reliable enough for most everyday movements and activities.” You can bet that will change. Apple’s Tim Cooktold CNBC last year the company’s biggest contribution to mankind will be about health.

The way we shop took a major re-route in March-May of this year due to the coronavirus. Retailers like Best Buy and Game Stop took a big hit to store sales but saw their e-commerce sales surge. I’m no stranger to online shopping, but I morphed into a round-the-clock shopper during shelter-at-home. Sonos’ CEO was giddy on a May earnings call saying that a spike in that company’s April sales proved that customers don’t need to listen to speakers to buy them. That has to send shivers down the spines of AV retailers.

instacartA big beneficiary of shelter-in-place orders was online grocery; sales went through the roof.

Walmart’s e-commerce sales jumped 74% in Q1; executives gave some of the credit to the fourfold bump in customers trying pickup and delivery for the first time. That included the retailer’s new pre-paid Express Delivery option: People plunked down an extra $10 to have groceries and other products dropped at their door in under two hours.

I wonder how long that will last? I was on the online delivery train for about a month while on lockdown — thanks for everything, Instacart — but that has slacked off. I’m picky about my food choices, and I only trust myself to pick an avocado that will be just ripe enough for tonight’s salad. And $10 a pop for a drop-off? That adds up; it buys a lotta bananas up the street at Trader Joe’s.

I’m pretty sure customer support won’t go back to the good ol’ days, and by that I mean when the online chat box was populated by a real person. That transition was already in the works. My bank tells me due to high call volumes during Covid-19, I probably now want to use their app. Or, I can text them, and they’ll text me a link so I can message them in the app. That sounds like as much fun as being on hold.

AI is moving us into a world where the service provider dictates the conversation. My question now has to fall into a bucket: “You can say things like ‘billing’ or ‘add a service,’ my wireless carrier tells me in the chat box. My particular question must’ve been a common one — “Can you explain why my bill went up in price?” – but the robo-answer left me cursing: “I understand how important managing expenses is. It looks like your balance is actually the same as last month.” Great, now chatbots can fib.

I don’t know where I would have been without tech over the last few months, which took care of shopping, doctor visits and Zoom calls while social distancing. But I’m OK with the real world, too, where I can select my own fruit, the doctor says, “Ahhh,” and we can hear others over the sound of our own voice. A little “artificial reality” goes a long way.

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