‘Laura’ Makes Digital Health Coaching Personal

As healthcare chairman for World Usability Day 2007, I’m very interested in advances in consumer healthcare on the Web.

Northeastern University computer science professor Timothy Bickmore has created a virtual health coach called “Laura” that can help patients remember to take pills on time or encourage them to get out for a walk. Bickmore hopes that as the population of baby boomers continues to age, virtual coaches such as Laura will be able to bridge the gap between the growing number of patients and the insufficient number of health care professionals.

Other online health care experiments include tailored voice messages delivered to a person’s phone coupled with Internet sites and chat groups to help people exercise or quit smoking. A portable pill box called Med-eMonitor chimes when it is time to take a pill, can sense if the patient took the pill out of the box, has a screen that can ask patients questions, and can connect to a phone line to send data to trained health coaches who can then send messages to patients or contact their doctor.

Such high-tech health care programs are particularly useful for today’s complex medical regimens, which frequently require patients to take a half-dozen pills or more per day. Bickmore says that in some cases research has shown that patients actually prefer dealing with a computer than an actual health care professional, as they feel less intimidated asking questions and less guilty about using a computer’s time. He says people are also more honest with computer when disclosing “socially undesirable behaviors” such as drug and alcohol use. Nevertheless, Bickmore says the most essential aspect of health care is human-to-human interaction, and although technologies such as Laura are not a replacement, they can help deal with the limitations in the current health care system.

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