Would You Allow a Virtual Nurse to Look After You?

A Virtual Nurse (Photo Credit: Tecnologyreview)
A Virtual Nurse (Photo Credit: Tecnologyreview)

Yes, you read that right!  A virtual nurse!  A care provider who exists, but not in actual form. 

Nurse Elizabeth   (Photo credit:   Smartplanet)
Nurse Elizabeth (Photo credit: Smartplanet)

And all this time we thought virtual characters can be found only in the movies and in online games.  Now, even the medical field has been considering (and practicing?) virtuality in health care.  Wow!  …  Or is it “WTF?”

We may find it virtually impossible to imagine a nurse doing her stuff via the screen; after all, a nurse is a care provider who usually works in a hospital, a clinic or a lying-in center, taking care of patients by performing hands-on care related with cleansing wounds, taking blood pressure and temperature,and  performing other tasks in hospital rooms or the ER.  So, how is virtual nursing possible?

But, it’s true.  We may find it surprising, but presently, nursing is now taking another form; which includes working from home as part of a virtual nurse team and providing nursing services while continuing to have a high-level of job satisfaction – via online.  The attraction rate  is increasing because of the lesser travel cost, stress -free status from rush hour traffics and long commutes, plus being able to attend to house tasks.  It is said that many companies are utilizing work-from-home models in providing nursing services to clinics, hospitals and insurance companies.

However, let us not be misinformed.  These virtual nurses do not have the means to attend to hands-on tasks like changing your bandages, cleansing wounds, or giving you a sponge bath (of course, you say!).  No.  The virtual nursing career presently covers only Case Managers, Home health Nursing, Clinical Nurse Educators, Medical Science Liasons, Case Review Nurses  and Telkephone Triage or Call Support Nurses.  So, where there’s a need to perform physical tasks, the ever human nurses are still there for us, don’t worry.

And yet, we have another set of virtual nurses which were developed  by researchers at Northeastern University.  Presenting …. the virtual nurse and exercise coach – which were found to be surprisingly liked by patients with whom they were tested, and in addition, they went as far as being effective with some.  It brought a smile to my lips upon learning that with a virtual nurse named Elizabeth, patients actually voiced out that they found the interaction with Elizabeth (computer simulation similar to SIRI, the intelligent personal assistant which helps you get things done through simple asking) more preferable to an actual doctor or nurse, stating reasons like “they didn’t feel rushed” or “being talked down to.”  (Really?  Yes!)

The recent clinical trial further showed that people who interacted with Elizabeth were more happy knowing their diagnosis and more eager to make follow-up appointments with their doctors or healthcare provider.  Timothy Bickmore, the associate professor in Northeastern’s College of Computer and Information Science who led the research, said that their study try to present something more than just exchange of information; more over, they are integrating social exchange as a very beneficial tool to making patients feel good because it empathizes with the patients who are having problems.  The addition of simple touches of humanity appears to influence how people interacts with the virtual nurse.  They found that people more accurately report their health information with a virtual nurse like Elizabeth than when they are filling out the pages from a standard electronic questionnaire.

Next is the the virtual coach called Karen, a second home-based trial worked on by Bickmore with Joseph Kvedar, a physician and founder and director of the Center for Connected Health at Partners Healthcare. Karen prodded overweight and least-moving adults to do some exercise and gave them recommendations and listened to their worries and difficulties.  Users checked in with Karen three times a week and after just12 weeks, results showed that those who talked to the coach were amazingly more active than those who did regular walking with their accelerometer.  A  positive push of inspiration from Karen boosted those overweight adults?  Looks like it did!

As Bickmore said, older adults seem to be really accepting and actually liking the social aspect of the virtual coach Karen; so much so that they want to chat longer with her.  Gee!

The team of Bickmorem is presently working on a virtual nurse for the hospital room, so that patients can talk  about their hospital experience, report their pain levels, and be able to ask questions. The team are also working on sensors to be integrated into the system, to track when patients are resting/sleeping  and when different doctors come to see their patients.

As can be expected, however, those patients having little or no computer experience at all are quite perturbed and prefer the virtual person with which they feel more natural with.  Most people are actually reluctant, more frightened when they are told they are going to receive care from a computer.  These virtual nurses and virtual coaches have a  way to go when it comes to convincing more patients to get the hang of it.

(Perhaps they need to be assisted -and convinced- by Siri on how to use a computer first? ^_^)

How about you?  Would you be comfortable with a virtual nurse or coach?

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