With all the changes buffeting the healthcare sector, these days, it's easy to overlook what's happening to the nation's supply of doctors. According to a 2012 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, "the United States is projected to confront a shortage of 91,500 doctors by 2020."
While, naturally, the most obvious solution to this looming problem is to figure out how to get more young people to become doctors, another partial solution is being built even as we speak.
As Victor Morrison, vice president of healthcare markets for Spokane, Wash.-based NextIT sees it, virtual health assistants (VHA) are on the cusp of playing a major role in the transformation of healthcare delivery.
NextIT is in the business of developing interfaces for people to use to talk to computers, and those interfaces – or avatars – have a way of taking on a life of their own. A couple of the more prominent avatars the company has developed are Sgt. Star, who answers questions about life in the U. S. Army at goarmy.com, and Ann, who "works" for Aetna.
In explaining NextIT's work, Morrison repeatedly cited research conducted by Northeastern University's Timothy Bickmore, who argues that so-called relational agents "can play a major role in the chronic disease management process by providing patients not only with an additional source of information about their disease, treatment regimen and adherence level, but with motivational support for taking care of themselves as well."
But what does this mean in specific terms? Morrison points to three trends that are already underway:
- Smartphones. The most recent figures point to half of all U.S. cell phone users being owners of smartphones. According to Morrison, chronic disease sufferers in particular stand to benefit significantly from the combination of avatar technology and smartphones, as avatars can be programmed to check in daily with patients to monitor things like medication compliance and other aspects of their regular care regimen.
- Greater health literacy. As Morrison described it, "There's all this information swirling around" the average patient, and even the most diligent have a hard time keeping track of it. Moreover, Morrison noted, when it comes to compliance, "The biggest problem is not people forgetting; it's expectations not being met." In other words, many patients have an idea of what they'd like their healthcare regimen to do for them, and when it doesn't, they have a tendency to let it slip. With avatars able to explain things in-depth and on a regular basis, the percentage of informed patients should increase.
- Have a question? Ask an avatar. Refering to Watson, the IBM computer that in 2011 won a $1 million prize on Jeopardy, Morrison pointed out that so-called supercomputers have actually been around since the 1950s. "The magic," he said, "is that computers now know where to get information." In healthcare terms, then, just as avatars can deliver pre-programmed information to patients based on their specific conditions, they can also respond to a broad array of other questions, making them a valuable resource to over-stretched doctors.
Bickmore's research, has shown that people make a social and emotional connection with well-developed avatars, said Morrison. If, as patients, people are more willing to be proactive in managing their health, they'll clearly benefit – as will the time-strapped doctors who are trying to take care of them.
[See also: At Aetna.com ask 'Ann' anything]