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A New Clinician in Town: Using Avatar “Clinicians” Meaningfully

Michelle McNickle recently published an interesting article in InformationWeek, titled “Can Avatars Improve Patient Outcomes?” which has sparked my interest in these new “physician extenders.”  Can we actually use these personifications to improve patient care, patient outcomes and possibly even help chronic care patients learn about their disease in an anonymous manner so they don’t feel singled out?  I think it is a great idea which can even be personalized for individual patients.

How can we do this?  Ms. McNickle explains in her article that healthcare avatars have successfully been used to help women improve their preconception health by allowing these women access to an avatar that exhibited more “human” characteristics, which produced more actionable results.  Human interaction was NOT replaced; it was augmented by allowing the initial questions to be answered by the avatars, triaging the more difficult interactions to the human clinicians.  Going forward, this would allow our clinicians to be used in a more effective, efficient role which would enable them to spend more time dealing with more complex cases.

In addition, I can see a role for avatars in our newly forming Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) and Patient Centered Medical Homes (PCMH).  They could be used to help case manager monitor chronic care patients and provide support and education to those same patients.  Perhaps they could greet these patients at different times of the day to remind them to take their medications or exercise.  They could become the patient’s social contact and even a “friend.”

Finally, we can potentially use the clinician avatars to achieve Meaningful Use Stages 2 and 3.  With the focus squarely on patient engagement, could we engage patients by using avatars to provide educational resources and health care “wellness coaches” to patients via an enhanced patient portal experience?  I think that would be a novel way to connect with patients on an ongoing basis.

In an age where digital experience is touching every generation, clinician avatars may be the light at the end of the tunnel.  I think it might be worth the risk.  What do you think?

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