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May 03, 2017
By: Frances Dare

Considering a future with “virtual humans” and artificial intelligence advisers

I first began exploring the application of “virtual humans” in healthcare around 2006. Colleagues and I predicted that virtual humans would move from “the art of the possible” to applied technologies within a few years’ time. It took longer than expected, but 10 years later the future has arrived.

Think of virtual humans, virtual agents and smart advisers as “interactive characters with human-like qualities able to communicate with humans.” The virtual human is able to perceive the world through sensing technologies and interfaces, comprehend data and information through analytics, and act by making informed decisions. There are at least three meaningful ways smart advisers can be applied in healthcare with tangible impact.

First, think of customer service agents that help with simple actions like appointment scheduling, or more complex endeavors such as health plan benefits selection. One study reports that of 270 billion calls to human-staffed call centers each year, one in two calls requires escalation. In comparison, virtual agents are delivering 80 percent success rates for customer-problem resolution by providing personalized interactions. We can have the same success in healthcare.

A second opportunity is with cognitive agents that mimic the brain to reduce the cognitive load on humans. Healthcare is one of the most knowledge-intensive of all industries. Smart agents can become a knowledge partner with physicians, nurses, researchers and others to search, find, present and apply the most current clinical knowledge. According to a leading analyst firm, by 2023 one-third of all work performed by highly-skilled workers (lawyers, teachers and yes, even doctors) will be assisted by cognitive computing. Imagine the possibilities for improved clinician efficiency and capacity as well as for quality care.

In the third opportunity area, smart advisers take on the work of clinicians, substituting for human labor. By one estimate, the United States will have a shortage of as many as 31,000 primary-care physicians by 2025. More than 96 million Americans live in an area with a shortage of mental-health providers. The ability of care-management programs to serve large populations is limited by the number of available care managers and their capacity. Enter virtual humans. Virtual humans are coaching patients with congestive heart failure and other conditions today. Researchers at a leading academic center have developed smart agents that provide support for stress-related disorders, including post-traumatic stress.

Can high tech be high touch? Yes. In fact, virtual humans in healthcare have proven to be better than living, breathing humans in many aspects. Virtual humans avoid the human flaw of unintended non-verbal communication such as judgment. There’s also less sense of the hierarchy often found in clinician-patient relationships. The result? Patients are often more truthful with virtual humans and more compliant with their coaching and care plans.

The healthcare possibilities with smart advisers will rapidly evolve. It’s the perfect time to imagine the possibilities. How can you imagine smart advisers being applied in health?


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