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Can A Virtual Medical Assistant Be Your Valentine?

February 13, 2017


by Adam Odessky

On Valentine’s Day, it’s popular to talk about a kissing simulator app or a cool new dating site. But I wanted to share some news with you about how technology can become your everyday Valentine; in other words - loving, caring and healing.

Molly, Sensely’s virtual medical assistant, is a great example of how technology can offer therapeutic help with expertise and empathy. Based on our extensive research, we noticed that incredible things start to happen as patients get comfortable with Molly. They confide in her about their habits, talk about their mood, and tell her to have a good weekend.

Valentine’s Day is a great holiday if your heart is intact. If you are single or heart-broken, though, the occasion can fall flat. Stress and depression that often go hand-in-hand with divorce or a loss of a loved one can lead to heart disease.

These are not happy thoughts on February 14th. They come in light of the latest report from the American Heart Association about heart failure rates on the rise in the U.S. That same report said that heart disease remains the leading cause of death in our country.

Because Sensely works a lot with patients with heart conditions, I often think about what keeps our hearts healthy. Intense physical or emotional events that involve other people often precede heart aches of various magnitudes. Communication is one of the key ingredients for any healthy relationship - with your partner, your parent, or your doctor.

In the modern world, though, we don’t always have the luxury of the time. At Sensely, we believe that technology can fill that gap. Intelligent machines are capable of becoming our medical assistants and taking over some of those tasks that we often lack the time for.

Molly listens and coaches; patients feel at ease sharing their personal information and are more likely to comply with Sensely’s instructions. As a result, hospital readmissions drop, physicians save time, our healthcare system saves a lot of money and becomes more sustainable. Sounds like a medical wonderland? Not at all.

There are many digital platforms today designed to monitor and calculate health risks to alert clinicians of any changes in their patients’ recovery. Many of these platforms, though, have been designed to follow one-size-fits-all approach, failing to account for differences in human constitutions and their disease histories.Technologies with artificial intelligence save physicians time and allow them to perform clinical procedures they didn’t have time for before.

Let’s take a look at Jane, one of our heart failure patients. She is 64, lives alone and has an 8-hour desk job. She knows she has to eat a healthy diet, exercise and manage her stress levels, but she doesn’t always follow the rules. Jane doesn’t like working out in a gym but loves frequent potlucks at work.

As one of the patients in the hospital that incorporated Sensely into their treatment plans, Jane installs our app on her phone. First a little skeptical, she starts forming a relationship with Molly. During her daily check-ins, Molly begins with empathetic open-ended questions, the way a real nurse would. She talks to Jane about her weight, sends her reminders about Jane’s medication and keeps track of her blood pressure, among other things. Because Molly is an artificially intelligent machine, she knows how to ask follow-up questions based on the patient’s answers and medical history.

Research shows that patients tend to trust machines more than people. Because of that trust, empathy and non-judgement, many people often feel they can share more with a robot. I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a research director at the University of Southern California specializing in the use of virtual reality in health care. Based on many studies, Dr. Rizzo concluded that software wins every time over humans when it comes to discussion of sad events. People open up easier because there’s no judgment and no risk.

We see it in the case with Jane. Gradually, she becomes as comfortable with Molly as she would be with a friend. One day Jane tells Molly she forgot to take her medication.  Molly offers to set up a daily reminder.  Molly notices Jane's blood pressure has been elevated recently, and sends an alert to Jane's physician.  Her doctor calls and realizes Jane has been taking an incorrect dosage.

Molly’s job is to assist and educate, not to diagnose. The more readings of a patient’s lifestyle she takes, the more she’s able to predict what will happen in the future. Artificial intelligence and machine learning help doctors learn about their patients’ risk thresholds for admission to the hospital. The more Molly gets to know and care for Jane, the better the assistant is equipped to tell whether certain behaviors will end up being false positives or real issues.

Artificial intelligence transforms how we operate and rely on technology daily, enabling people to work more efficiently and effectively, making our jobs simpler. Health care is particularly in need of technological innovations and interventions. There’s a growing problem of nursing and physician shortages in the U.S. The Bureau of Labor Statistics cautions that over half a million more nurses will be needed by 2022. It’s telling that there are already not enough professors to teach incoming nursing students today. We also face a shortage of tens of thousands of physicians in less than 10 years.

Artificially and clinically intelligent bots can help offset these shortages. By making technology more personal and purposeful, we can offload low-value tasks from physicians and nurses and have them focus on sicker patients. During one of our recent studies, the readmission rate for patients using Sensely’s technology for 30 days was below 5 percent. Most patients had no problem learning how to use the app and shared more information with Molly than they normally would with their medical provider. Some went as far as saying they didn’t know how they would manage without Molly. “I feel like someone’s holding my hand,” was Jane’s response to having Molly to talk to every day.

Interested in chatting with someone from the Sensely team?