Avatar Assistants

It's not human, but it can take your vitals, offer medical advice, and guide you through physical therapy exercises. It even has six bedside manners to choose from.

Meet Sense.ly, a digital platform currently in beta testing. It combines voice recognition technology, motion detection, and wireless home monitoring devices to keep an eye on patients when a doctor isn't around.

Adam Odessky, chief executive officer of San Francisco-based Sense.ly, told Healthline that the company pitches their product as a way to help healthcare professionals become more efficient in handling day-to-day patients. “The idea is to have more patients per day and reduce admissions,” Odessky said. "It also helps patients comply much better and adhere to prescribed instructions." 

Sense.ly spun off the product after it was initially developed by French telecommunications company Orange.

Also known as an avatar, or a digital presence with a human likeness, Sense.ly so far is only being tested at the San Mateo Medical Center in California as well as an addiction clinic in the Golden State.

“It's kind of a ubiquitous medical assistant,” said Odessky, who plans to launch the avatar to a wider audience by the end of the summer. “It's a caretaker that's with you at all times.”

Paul Carlisle, director of rehabilitation at the San Mateo hospital, said the avatar is getting mixed reviews from patients. “Some are kind of having fun with it, but others are not as enthusiastic,” he told Healthline.

So far, the hospital is only using the avatar during physical therapy sessions for knee replacement patients. “You certainly get a big buzz in the gym when you turn it on,” Carlisle said. “Everybody stares at it. The avatar is very realistic, and it's fun to see the different responses from patients.”

The avatar is hooked up to an Internet-equipped television at the San Mateo hospital, but it can also be operated from a smart phone. The next step, Carlisle said, is to have it monitor patients from home.

Odessky said the device could prove useful for people with diabetes, for example. “You can buy a glucometer (which measures blood sugar) for $20 at Walgreen's, plug it into a smart phone with a USB cable, and the avatar downloads the data and sends it to Sense.ly," he said. "It can then ask questions about diabetes, such as how the patient is eating.”

For the San Mateo Medical Center's purposes, the avatar measures range of motion in the joint when knee replacement patients exercise. It also asks them about their pain levels. “The question is, how can we make sure the data is precise?” Carlisle asked. “There have been some challenges with that.”

The avatar is intended to ease the burden on an overextended healthcare system, especially when it comes to monitoring patients with chronic ailments. People are waiting much longer to see a doctor than they used to, Odessky said, and millions of uninsured patients continue to enter the system.

It adds up to what he calls a “mentality of avoidance” among patients. “They are so frustrated about not seeing a doctor they let their symptoms exacerbate and it costs much more money,” Odessky said.

Carlisle stressed that the avatar will not become a replacement for physical therapists. “You still have to have that judgment, but we're always looking for ways to augment what they're doing or give them the ability to see more patients,” he said. “We are so pressured to see patients with less and less time, we have to start thinking about advanced technology.”

The San Mateo Medical Center is a public hospital. The majority of its patients are Spanish-speaking and low-income, Carlisle said. “In public health, we're under-resourced and overwhelmed with patients. We're thinking of other ways to get to this big mass.”

Francisco Morales de Leon, a patient at the San Mateo hospital, told Healthline he appreciates the avatar because he mainly speaks Spanish, and some of the live physical therapists can't communicate with him as well as the avatar does. “I love it. The avatar helps me understand better," Morales de Leon said. "I am practicing the exercises and feeling better in my legs.”

The avatar speaks several languages and dialects.

Carlisle said he enjoys the enthusiasm of patients like Morales de Leon. “Some say [the avatar] is creepy, but for me, it's interesting. I think in some ways it motivates patients to get back on the exercise machine."

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