Rethinking Healthcare

Virtual nurse provides comfort for hospital patients

Virtual nurse provides comfort for hospital patients

Posting in Technology

Patients actually preferred Elizabeth, the computer simulated nurse, over actual people because they didn't feel rushed or talked down to. With video.

Researchers have developed a computer simulated nurse that patients in hospitals find comforting.

In fact, patients who have interacted with the virtual nurse, Elizabeth, say they preferred the simulated version to an actual doctor or nurse because they didn’t feel rushed or talked down to. Technology Review reports.

A recent clinical trial found that the technology also seems to have a beneficial effect on care. One month after discharge, people who interacted with Elizabeth were more likely to know their diagnoses and make follow-up appointments with their doctors.

"We try to present something that is not just an information exchange but is a social exchange," says study researcher Timothy Bickmore of Northeastern University. "It expresses empathy if the patient is having problems, and patients seem to resonate with that."

  1. They first recorded interactions between real nurses and their patients.
  2. Then they tried to imitate nonverbal communication by giving the avatars hand gestures and facial expressions.
  3. They added small talk – you know, the weather, sports, that stuff – which real nurses use to put patients at ease.

The interactions are really basic: the nurse has a set repertoire of questions and patients choose from a selection of possible answers. (Anything beyond that, the nurse will refer the patient to a human.)

Watch a video of Elizabeth taking ‘John’ through the discharge process.

Turns out, patients more accurately reported their health information with the virtual character than they did when filling out a standard electronic questionnaire.

The team is now working on a nurse that resides in the hospital room so patients can talk about their hospital experience, report pain levels, and ask questions. In a pilot study, patients had an average of 17 conversations with the nurse per day.

They're also working on a home-based trial, where a virtual coach named Karen encourages overweight sedentary adults to exercise. Users check in with her 3 times a week, and she gives them recommendations and listens to their problems. Over 12 weeks, those who talked to her were significantly more active than those who just had an accelerometer that recorded how much they walked.

AND, participants with a coach who told them stories in the first person were more likely to log into the system than those who heard the same story told in third person. According to Bickmore, "they say they will feel guilty about not logging in, which means they have formed some kind of emotional bond."

Via MIT Technology Review.

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure