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Animated Avatars Guide Hospital Patients’ Recoveries

The virtual health coaches can give advice, reminders and encouragement

virtual health nurse clicking on health icon

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Virtual nurses help coach patients during hospital stays.

With nurses in short supply these days, patients hospitalized for an illness or surgery may be getting information, advice and encouragement from Sally, a smiling and pleasant-voiced young woman in hospital scrubs, or her male counterpart, Walt. 

But Sally and Walt aren’t real people. They’re animated avatars — virtual personal health coaches — in a recently introduced, artificial intelligence-powered patient engagement and education platform called iCare Navigator, which can be accessed on a tablet or through a hospital TV set.

TeleHealth Services, which developed iCare Navigator, says it draws upon a patient’s electronic medical records and uses machine learning to build a personalized relationship. The application gradually figures out when a patient would be most receptive to learning about a health condition or how best to manage care. 

The iCare Navigator platform was inspired by research at the Boston University School of Medicine, which developed virtual nurses named Louise and Elizabeth to coach patients on things such as when to take their medications. A study found that 74 percent of patients preferred receiving discharge instructions from a virtual nurse instead of a human. 

Richard Bootes, TeleHealth’s vice president of product development, said in an email that iCare Navigator may be particularly useful for older hospital patients “who grew up in a generation of ‘don’t ask, don’t challenge’ when interacting with health care providers.”

Other companies also have developed health care applications that use avatars. One example is Reflexion Health’s Virtual Exercise Rehabilitation Assistant (VERA), which guides patients through physical therapy exercises and monitors their progress. A recent report by consulting firm Accenture predicts that virtual nursing assistants could save $20 billion a year in health care costs by 2026.