Virtual physician improves patient understanding of portal-delivered info

Individuals reading physician notes and explanations of care through a patient portal are often confused with many medical terms without the necessary explanations. Scientists have developed a virtual physician to explain test results in layman’s terms, while equipping users with charts and risk assessments of measurements.

A team of researchers at the University of Illinois Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology and Carle Foundation Hospital's Research Institute published findings in the Journal of Biomedical Informatics. They aimed to make electronic medical records (EMRs) more efficient and useful, especially for older, less tech-savvy patients.

The computer physician was given two voices—one automated and another of an actual physician—to determine which one participants preferred. The computer physician was also programmed to show facial expressions, gestures and other human cues to make patient feel more comfortable with discussing their health with a virtual human.

"The dialogue delivered by the computer agent is similar to that which would occur during a routine office visit with a physician," said co-author William Schuh, MD, Carle's chief medical information officer. "The videos are intended to supplement, not replace, physician-patient interaction, promoting patients' understanding of their health conditions and their performance of self-care behaviors."

In the study, researchers enrolled patients from 65 to 89 years in ages who were able to view or listen to messages and test results given by the computer physician. Afterwards, patients were tested for comprehension on the information presented. Overall, patients were able to understand and remember more of the content described to them with the use of a computer physicians with a slight favoritism to the natural sounding voice.

"On one side of the screen, you have your test scores embedded in the graphic, and on the other side, you have the physician telling you what this means, such as, 'Your LDL cholesterol is elevated, and that's not good because it poses risk," said lead author Daniel Morrow.