San Francisco-based start-up Sense.ly has developed a virtual assistant which helps medical practitioners to track the progress of patients suffering from such chronic conditions as diabetes, heart disease and mental disorders.
Benefiting from the recent improvement in voice recognition technology, the range of virtual assistants on offer has increased considerably over the last few years. The VAs best known to the general public – including Siri, Google Now and Cortana – have been developed by the giants of the new Information and Communication Technology field. However, virtual assistants can also be designed to carry out specialised tasks, thus breathing new life into a range of traditional markets. The health sector is especially fertile ground for such developments. VAs can help doctors – often overloaded in their day-to-day work – by taking over the most tedious routine tasks and enabling them to concentrate on their patients. One example is the avatar-based system equipped with artificial intelligence developed by Sense.ly. This VA, which has a nice human face and goes by the name of Molly, is designed to help patients suffering from chronic illnesses to manage their conditions on a day-to-day basis. Molly monitors the patient’s health status, identifies any causes for concern, and notifies the patient’s regular doctor so that s/he can take the situation in hand. “Imagine a medical practitioner with 500 patients suffering from heart disease. That’s far too many for one clinician to monitor on a daily basis,” points out Cathy Pearl, Director of User Experience at Sense.ly, explaining: ‟Molly enables the doctor to focus on patients with urgent problems, without having to track everyone’s health on a permanent basis.”
Monitoring patients’ health status
Sense.ly focuses mainly on patients with diabetes, heart conditions and mental disorders. Molly, the virtual medical assistant, interacts with them on a daily basis via tablet or mobile phone. She checks their health by asking questions, helps them to take their own blood pressure, record their weight and track other vital signs using sensors and connected devices. All this information is collected and sent to the patient’s doctor. The virtual assistant can even hold voice conversations with patients, a feature which is actually more important than it might seem, argues Cathy Pearl. “The fact that Molly has a face encourages patients to interact more. Talking out loud to someone is far more stimulating than simply pressing a button. So instead of being turned off by the daily repetitive tasks that their treatment requires them to perform, patients are happy to talk to Molly and become more conscientious about taking their medication.”
Presentation: Sense.ly and virtual assistant Mollyésentation de la startup Sense.ly et de son assistante virtuelle Molly
In addition to the purely medical aspects, the fact of having a person – albeit a virtual avatar – to talk to really can help to improve a patient’s condition. “There’s a gap between what patients actually need and what it’s currently feasible to provide them with. They don’t only require treatment, they also need company, and although a virtual assistant cannot of course replace a clinician, her presence can serve to reassure them that they are being properly taken care of, that someone’s listening, and this can help their recovery,” claims Cathy Pearl. The VA avatar approach is also very well suited to people suffering from memory loss: Molly will remind them to take their medication and is quite happy to answer the same question over and over again without showing impatience.
Prevention is better than cure
Sense.ly’s virtual medical assistant is now available throughout the United States and the UK National Health Service is starting to deploy the solution as well. Going forward, the VA could also be used in other ways, for instance by people who are not suffering from any particular illness, but would simply like some help in taking care of themselves, following a special diet or setting up an exercise/sports programme. The assistant could keep them regularly up to date on how well they are meeting their targets. In the United States, half of the total expenditure on health in 2014 was spent on ‘frequent fliers’, i.e. people who require repeated hospitalisation for the same unmanaged chronic condition. Physicians agree that consistent medical monitoring and more frequent consultations could radically reduce the risk of complications in these patients. However, the medical industry is far from having sufficient resources to monitor each patient 24-7 and artificial intelligence definitely has a role to play here. Californian startup 22otters also offers a service to help patients in their daily lives, based on an app that lists a set of tasks to be carried as part of their treatment, symptoms they should keep an eye on and their planned upcoming medical appointments, plus an option to send questions to their doctor. So virtual assistants are now joining quantum computers and Google Glass among the cutting-edge new technologies that represent a major pool of resources to assist healthcare practitioners in their work.