Would You Trust Your Hospital Care to a Virtual Nurse?

A nurse tends to a patient

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

In Technology Review, Emily Singer looks at efforts to create avatars to interact with patients at hospitals. While at first blush you might suspect that people would be reluctant to embrace a virtual nurse, research suggests that there might not be much pushback. “[P]atients who interacted with a virtual nurse named Elizabeth said they preferred the computer simulation to an actual doctor or nurse because they didn’t feel rushed or talked down to,” Singer writes.

In one study, a virtual nurse was placed in hospital rooms; on average, patients interacted with the faux Florence Nightingale 17 times per day. It seems that people are more honest with computer systems that involve a human-like avatar asking about their health than they are with a straightforward, text-based question-and-answer form. Researchers creating these virtual nurses are working to bring more humanity into their systems, programming the avatars to show facial expressions and ask small-chat questions about the weather and sports to help patients react.

Of course, avatar Elizabeth can’t (yet) replace the real thing. But such systems could help ease the chronic nursing staff shortage problems by freeing up human health workers to respond to patient calls for help. As the New York Times reported in May, patients who need assistance—whether they are experiencing a new symptom or just want a glass of water—often have to wait too long for care. It’s easy to imagine a computer-based system that helps triage complaints and mete out instructions in a way that properly utilizes hospital resources, sending an orderly to help an elderly patient with blankets, a nurse to handle chest pains.

Innovative approaches to staffing hospitals will become more important in the future, as the aging baby boomers require health care.

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