CodeBaby CEO Dennis McGuire Interviewed by MedCity news

June 20, 2013

CEO believes healthcare is ready for avatars, starting with health insurance exchanges

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June 4, 2013 9:44 am by  |

As payers puzzle out the best way to engage potential members in the health insurance exchanges scheduled to go live in October, technology company CodeBaby is making a big play to work with insurers. The idea is to use avatars or “intelligent virtual assistants” as an educational tool for helping prospective and current plan members navigate various healthcare plans.

CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield plans to use an avatar called “Chloe” to greet those accessing its website and walk them through the details of its plans so they can make more informed choices based on their medical needs. It’s part of a collaboration announced today with the Colorado-based company to serve prospective customers and its 3 million members across Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia.

Why avatars? You don’t need to pay them, for the game-oriented there’s a presumption that they could add a sense of fun to complex tasks like buying insurance. Studies have shown they can improve customer satisfaction. They are also beginning to be used in healthcare such as substance abuse and as an experimental approach to treating schizophrenia. Some reports show that people feel more comfortable with them and can improve outcomes.

Proponents say they engage patients more dynamically than other options and people aren’t as self conscious about asking questions because they’re not people. They are also a more practical option than a call center when you think of the estimated 30 million people expected to be added to the healthcare system.res

As users walk through CareFirst’s website, the idea is to use highlighted text and dialogue boxes to aid Chloe in her efforts to explain the plans in the context of the Affordable Care Act. Dennis McGuire, the CEO of CodeBaby, compares it to having someone look over their shoulder. He added that the cool thing about avatars is that they help people feel like they are in control rather than, say, being presented with a sales pitch. It’s also talking to states interested in using members of its avatar team as they set up healthcare insurance exchanges.

What’s intriguing is the potential the company sees beyond insurers to work with providers. McGuire said it’s eyeing applications from wellness programs to post discharge follow-up and potentially help with adherence. Avatars could also help providers (and payers) improve communication with users in different languages. They also offer different personalities depending on the context of the interaction and comfort level of the user. For example, an avatar in a white coat could explain a serious medical condition. A younger looking avatar in more casual gear could explain health and wellness tips. You get the idea.

CodeBaby also sees applications for the use of avatars in clinical trials to help make drug development more affordable.

It will be interesting to find out if CareFirst’s initiative is successful and how much it will influence other payers to do something similar. It probably won’t be for everyone, like seniors who aren’t technically savvy enough to navigate the Internet and don’t have any desire to be. But it’s a big moment for avatars to prove their credibility as a practical education tool for healthcare companies, especially if they can engage people in the complexities of the health insurance exchanges.

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