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Virtual Nurse Helps Patients Understand Discharge Information

Sarah Kearns, for HealthLeaders Media, December 30, 2009

A virtual nurse named "Elizabeth" is helping nurses and patients during the discharge process.

Elizabeth is a computer-animated character created from combining the facial expressions and gestures of doctors and nurses that Timothy Bickmore, a computer scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, taped. With the help of an animator, Bickmore was able to create all the animation segments the nurse delivers, which will also be Elizabeth's responsibility.

Elizabeth tries to help patients understand discharge information. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention latest statistics, 40 million patients are discharged from hospitals every year without fully understanding the follow-up care needed to prevent readmission. Other national studies show that 20% of patients are readmitted to the hospital 30 days after discharge, with a third of those readmissions preventable.

With Bickmore's system, when a patient is ready for discharge, a touch-screen computer can be wheeled to the bedside. All the patient's discharge information is pre-programmed, so Elizabeth can directly help the patient answer any questions or concerns they might have.

Elizabeth can discuss the 1,500 most commonly prescribed medications and she also quizzes patients to make sure they understand the information given to them. If the patient happens to get a question wrong, and Elizabeth is unable to answer the question, the nurse receives an alert.

Using Elizabeth is not intended to be a replacement for the nursing staff, but to offer a helping hand to staff members and their patients. The use of virtual nurse also intends to provide patients with a comprehensive informational review upon discharge. As the average discharge conversation between a nurse and a patient is eight minutes, the new system will allow patients to take their time and better comprehend the information presented to them.

Still in the clinical trials of the system, Bickmore eventually plans to develop an application where patients can talk to the virtual nurse while in the comfort of their own home.


Sarah Kearns is an editor for HCPro in the Quality and Patient Safety Group. Contact Sarah at skearns@hcpro.com.

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