Language Use in Conversational Agent–Based Health Communication: Systematic Review


Background: Given the growing significance of conversational agents (CAs), researchers have conducted a plethora of relevant studies on various technology- and usability-oriented issues. However, a few investigations focus on language use in CA-based health communication to examine its influence on the user perception of CAs and their role in delivering health care services.

Objective: This review aims to present the language use of CAs in health care to identify the achievements made and breakthroughs to be realized to inform researchers and more specifically CA designers.

Methods: This review was conducted by following the protocols of the PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) 2020 statement. We first designed the search strategy according to the research aim and then performed the keyword searches in PubMed and ProQuest databases for retrieving relevant publications (n=179). Subsequently, 3 researchers screened and reviewed the publications independently to select studies meeting the predefined selection criteria. Finally, we synthesized and analyzed the eligible articles (N=11) through thematic synthesis.

Results: Among the 11 included publications, 6 deal exclusively with the language use of the CAs studied, and the remaining 5 are only partly related to this topic. The language use of the CAs in these studies can be roughly classified into six themes: (1) personal pronouns, (2) responses to health and lifestyle prompts, (3) strategic wording and rich linguistic resources, (4) a 3-staged conversation framework, (5) human-like well-manipulated conversations, and (6) symbols and images coupled with phrases. These master themes effectively engaged users in health communication. Meanwhile, we identified substantial room for improvement based on the inconsistent responses of some CAs and their inability to present large volumes of information on safety-critical health and lifestyle prompts.

Conclusions: This is the first systematic review of language use in CA-based health communication. The results and limitations identified in the 11 included papers can give fresh insights into the design and development, popularization, and research of CA applications. This review can provide practical implications for incorporating positive language use into the design of health CAs and improving their effective language output in health communication. In this way, upgraded CAs will be more capable of handling various health problems particularly in the context of nationwide and even worldwide public health crises.

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