The virtual doctor will see you now

(USC CENTER FOR BODY COMPUTING) – Virtual doctors could bring health information to patients’ smartphones with a new app being developed at the University of Southern California’s Center for Body Computing.

The DocOn app aims to create avatars of medical experts and allow their patients to ask them questions about conditions and treatment, instead of watching videos or searching for information online.

Dr. Leslie Saxon, a cardiologist and the executive director of the Center for Body Computing, hopes the app will free up doctors to spend more time focusing on patients who need more serious attention.

“In a few years 80 percent of care that’s now being done in a bricks and mortar building with a point visit — us being in the same room together for that entirety of your health care visit with me and experience with me — that that’s going away. And so what that means is that you’ll have kind of an unprecedented access to health care, that as an expert I will be able to get back to sort of the thing I was trained to do and the reason I became a doctor to take care of patients but only those that need me,” she said.

One of the keys to patients being able to establish a rapport with the virtual humans lies in accurately capturing the doctors’ individual expressions and mannerisms, according to computer scientist Ari Shapiro, who created Saxon’s avatar.

“There’s a reputation that’s connected the doctor, which is connected to their appearance, so we think that capturing the doctor with how they are and how they express themselves would be important, as opposed to, for example, getting medical advice or information from a cartoon doctor, which you might not feel is legitimate,” said Shapiro, a research assistant professor at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies.

Saxon says digital doctors will be key in future efforts to personalize medical care and create a more technology-connected health care system.

“Let’s say that I have a patient who has arrhythmia and I’m managing them and they’re interacting with my virtual human and they get a symptom. Well, they can record an ECG from their iPhone and then port it up to that AI engine and then you can start to get this really rich bunch of data. You can also, because they’re accessing this over their phone, track their activity on their phone, see where they’ve been. That’s what we call contextualized health care,” she said.

The app is currently in the development stage and needs to go through some regulatory approvals before being made available to the public.