The PPACA opened the door to personal insurance options for millions of Americans during last year’s open enrollment. The exact number has yet to be pinned down, but estimates run anywhere from 5 million to 12 million enrollees, with each source having their own method of calculation. But what’s missing is an equivalent amount of doctors to meet their healthcare needs.
In fact, The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a shortage of 90,000 physicians by 2020. Not exactly a comforting thought considering the national average wait time to see a new family doctor is 45 days or that the average lobby room wait is 21 minutes. And that’s not counting the waiting time a patient will encounter in the exam room before the doctor arrives.
These troubling findings have made way for an influx of telehealth software and devices for doctor visits, as well as the exploration of virtual physicians and nurses to cover low-level interactions. These include gathering medical history information, checking symptoms, discussing lifestyle choices, etc.
This is a No Judgment Zone
I was on the hunt for a long, long time to find an exceptional doctor that truly made me comfortable. In fact, it took about seven years. Sharing information of the most personal nature is something generally reserved to a few closely trusted folks. And that feeling doesn’t change because the person standing in front of me has a medical license.
So, it isn’t very surprising that patients not only prefer disclosing personal information to virtual physicians, but they are also more honest when doing so. A recent study published in Computers in Human Behavior found that participants who were asked to disclose medical information to a non-observed, computer-driven virtual doctor did so with more honesty and less fear of judgment.
It’s human nature to want to look good in front of others. Often times, this desire leads patients to fib or gloss over important information, which is problematic for both the patient and the physician. According to Gale Lucas of the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, and facilitator of the previously mentioned study, “The power of VH (virtual human) interviewers to elicit more honest responding comes from the sense that no one is observing or judging.”
Virtual doctors create a safety space where the patient might truthfully explain how the Hot Wheel got stuck there in the first place without judging eyes staring them down.
Really Speaking My Language
Virtual humans can also bypass language barriers. At California’s San Mateo Medical Center, some patients work with a digital avatar named Molly who can interact in both English and Spanish. She gathers information from patients and then takes them through a series of exercises to complete their therapy.
CodeBaby’s virtual assistants utilize a lip-sync capability that can be matched to any language, even that of the nomadic Dothraki warriors. Pre-recorded speech paths are matched with avatars and placed in scenes that can then be deployed to explain concepts or interact with users.
These functions not only explain complex and important medical information to foreign speakers, but they also communicate the universal language of empathy impeccably.
In Lucas’ study, the virtual humans were preprogramed to develop a connection with the participants when applicable. “[I]t gave ‘verbal empathetic feedback’ such as ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ It also conveyed ‘active and empathetic listening’ via nods and expressions.”
People respond exquisitely to empathy because they feel as though they are being cared about. It’s human nature. Simple physical cues that reinforce feelings of importance elicit much more positive interactions than ones reinforcing feelings of judgment and shame.
All the Information from All the Devices!
Probably the most convenient feature of virtual doctors is the ability to link them to more health information via web or mobile apps. A rising star in the digital health world, Sense.ly is making a big splash. They created Molly, the virtual physical therapist. And their software has the ability to collect data from outside medical devices.
Platforms like Sense.ly’s are a breath of fresh air to real life, human doctors. Virtual doctors create the environment that encourages patients to share accurate and truthful information, which is then relayed back to the doctor to make appropriate medical decisions. Virtual doctors also help reduce the amount of device interrupting time (i.e. talking to your doctor who’s facing a computer or tablet), freeing up time for more undivided attention. In turn, reducing wait times for patients seeking medical attention from over-worked care providers.
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