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Enhancing empathy: Southern Cross Health Society launches an AI-powered digital assistant


New Zealand’s largest health insurer Southern Cross Health Society has launched an AI-powered digital assistant to help answer health insurance questions 24/7. Aimee, the digital team member, has been built using UneeQ’s Intelligent Digital Human Platform, and is designed to have a unique look and empathetic approach and is believed to be the first avatar of its kind to be developed by a health insurance company.

Aimee has been part of the Southern Cross Health Society team since last month. Launching a digital human is part of Southern Cross’ commitment to rolling out innovations that will shape the future of healthcare, as well as offering a way for the company to ensure Kiwis’ health insurance questions can be answered around the clock.

It’s an important step for the health insurer considering Southern Cross hasn’t had the ability to have conversations with its customers 24/7 before, as usually its contact centre hours are 8am until 6pm, Monday to Friday.

Chief Marketing Officer at Southern Cross Chris Watney says the addition of Aimee means its human services can become even better.

“This isn’t about job replacement, it’s about ensuring our contact centre and highly skilled people can really focus on those conversations that matter – like a claim or a diagnosis – rather than answering questions around policy admin. It allows us to provide a heightened overall level of service,” Watney says.

“We’re not expecting to see many jobs move out of the business on the back of this work. This is all about offering great customer service rather than removing costs.”

Watney says decisions around health insurance feel more personal, which is why Aimee has been designed to be empathetic.

“Other industries in New Zealand like banking and retail have been working with digital humans, but the way a consumer seeks and values information about products in those sectors is vastly different,” Watney says.

“We understand that when it comes to health insurance, people can feel quite vulnerable and emotions come into play. People often need reassurance they are making the right choices for themselves and their families and we’ve designed Aimee with this in mind. Like all of our customer contact team, Aimee is empathetic, warm, natural and trustworthy.”

However, Aimee is not equipped to answer every question. Most of the queries she can respond to currently are “low-level” conversations around the value of health insurance and the benefits members have available to them at Southern Cross Health Society, as this makes up the bulk of the enquiries the organisation receives.

Examples of questions she can answer include, ‘Why is health insurance a good idea?’ and ‘What is a pre-existing condition?’

When it comes to more sensitive issues or “high level” conversations, this is left to Southern Cross Health Society’s human employees.

“We’re not getting her to work with customers with things that are really personal, like a diagnosis,” Watney says. “You probably don’t want to talk to Aimee about approving your cancer treatment – that’s very much a human conversation.”

Designing, building and delivering Aimee took about six months to execute with the help of UneeQ and its digital avatar platform. In terms of the appearance and mannerisms of Aimee, Watney says it provided an interesting new challenge for the company.

“As a marketer, it’s a fascinating process to think about what a person looks like that really represents your brand,” he says. “We think about logos and other brand icons all the time, but a person is really interesting.”

It was important that Aimee didn’t look very similar to the other digital humans already in market that are typically young and female. A customised, synthesised version of a human voice is being used as Aimee’s voice, while a sense of what she should look like was gathered through casting an eye around Southern Cross Health Society’s contact centre and looking at the demographic of their own workers.

“We went a little bit older and a little bit more approachable,” Watney says. “We went with the hair up rather than a professional-looking haircut. We did decide on a female because when we looked around our business, well over half of our frontline staff are female so it made sense in that regard.”

He says in terms of mannerisms, Aimee can be playful, but also serious and empathetic when needed.

“It’s about that tone and manner and creating a fine line between offering someone approachable with a sense of humour that customers can talk to, but equally knows what is appropriate and what isn’t appropriate.”

UneeQ CEO Danny Tomsett says the realism behind Aimee and other digital avatars helps people establish a connection.

“UneeQ can create digital humans that listen, speak, show empathy and communicate in the way only humans could before. Everything from their unique appearance to their personalities are co-designed to create the most positive, lasting impact on users.”

Aimee has already been through rigorous testing, undergoing hundreds of test conversations prior to launch. So far, Watney says the reaction to her has been positive. 

Recent statistics have found that more than half (56%) of New Zealand adults have health literacy below what’s needed to meet the demands of everyday life.

Watney says in time, Aimee will be able to help people to understand and simplify the importance of living their healthiest lives.

“She’s driven by an AI engine, so she’ll get better and better at answering questions.”

Southern Cross is no stranger to rolling out innovative technologies within its business having already launched chatbots to answer customers’ questions.

Robotic process automation is also an integral part of the business, as it can do administrative tasks to free up Southern Cross Health Society staff to do high-value work.

In the future, Watney says there are lots of directions the capabilities of its digital assistant Aimee could be taken in.

“We could get into the personalised recommendation of which product suits your needs, or helping members change their address or add a new child to their policy. Somewhere down the line, we might get into helping people through a claims process or a health journey or procedure,” Watney says.

“As we get more confident in the way our customers are interacting with her, we’ll add more complexity.”

To interact with Aimee, head to Southern Cross Health Insurance’s website.

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