Timothy Bickmore Brings Technology Alive

May 9, 2013

Timothy Bickmore is using technology to help patients manage their own healthcare in a way no one else has. Meet Tanya, an avatar or “relational agent” in Bickmore’s phrase, who can serve as a nurse and personal health advocate.

By studying the behavior of real nurses and then turning his observations into complex computational algorithms, Bickmore is able to create avatars that show empathy and converse naturally with patients. They can access a patient’s medical records and provide information about drug treatments.

Avatars have unlimited time to walk patients through often confusing postclinic procedures, such as when to take their medication and how to dress a wound—abilities relevant to the critical issue of hospital readmissions.

In fact, a majority of patients involved in early clinical trials—particularly those with limited health and computer literacy—reported feeling more at ease interacting with avatars like Tanya than with live nurses.