Some time ago, an experiment was designed to get patients to be more active during their post-surgical recoveries by using pedometers. Everyone in the controlled study was given their weekly pedometer data, but half were given their step counts during virtual meetings with an avatar coach named Karen. The patients would type chat box messages about their recoveries and Karen would respond with instructions and supportive comments based on the comments. It turns out that the group that was connected with Karen was significantly more active in their first several postoperative weeks compared to those who were simply informed of their pedometer data by traditional means.
“In exit interviews, patients reported that they didn’t want to disappoint her and that they really valued the relationship — and it was a relationship with a coach who looks like a cartoon,” says Joseph C. Kvedar, a Harvard Medical School professor and board chairman of the American Telemedicine Association, a nonprofit that provides clinical practice guidelines for virtual care. “Our brains are wired to interact with things, and it doesn’t always have to be a human being. It can be software if it’s well designed.”
Enter phone apps and web platforms that healthcare providers use to educate and send reminders to patients before their procedure, communicate with loved ones on the day of surgery and help patients to actively participate in their postoperative care. Their use increased by necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic and there’s no sign of the burgeoning telehealth movement waning any time soon.