As a computer scientist, one wouldn't expect Timothy Bickmore to concern himself with making sure that schizophrenics take their medications or the elderly get enough exercise.
But that's where Laura comes in.
Laura, a computer-generated character, raises and knits her eyebrows, nods her head ever so gently, and almost seems to sigh as she commiserates with a patient over how challenging it is to remember to take pills or get out for a walk. A virtual health coach, she asks questions of patients and responds empathetically and encouragingly to their answers.
Bickmore's creation of Laura puts this Northeastern University professor at the forefront of growing attempts to build technology to help people stick to health regimens and increase the flow of information between healthcare providers and patients. The healthcare industry may soon turn to programs like Bickmore'swhich is still in the research phaseto augment the personalized attention patients get.
The benefits of virtual coaches and other interventions could go far beyond the health of the individual patient, innovators say. By keeping patients on their medication and physically active, virtual coaches and other technological innovations could also reduce hospital admissions and illness, and, as a result, cut healthcare costs. Studies suggest, for instance, that at least half of schizophrenics at some point fail to take their medication as prescribed.
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