University of Illinois recruits computer-generated physicians to drive patient portal engagement

Patient Portal
Videos featuring computer-generated physicians may be a way to get older adults with chronic illnesses to use patient portals.

The University of Illinois is tinkering with a new approach to patient portals that seeks to help older patients get a better grasp on their medical information.

The approach uses videos featuring computer-generated physicians embedded into the patient portal that explain test results using simplified terminology. Researchers at the University of Illinois’ Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology and the Carle Foundation Hospital’s Research Institute published a study earlier this month in the Journal of Biomedical Informatics showing how the approach can improve comprehension and boost engagement for older adults with lower levels of health literacy.

Patient portals are among the most valuable patient engagement tools, according to a recent survey, but researchers have also said portals need to be more interactive and personal to attract patients. Studies show this is particularly true for older adults. 

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The University of Illinois’ pilot project allows patients to view test results on one side of the screen while a computer-generated physician reads a recorded script explaining what it means for the patient’s overall health, and any next steps that might be necessary, Daniel Morrow, lead author of the study and an educational psychologist at the University of Illinios said in a press release.

"Because older adults are often self-managing chronic illnesses, they are the most frequent users of medical services and might benefit the most from access to their test findings and to educational and motivational health information,” added William Schuh, M.D., Carle's chief medical information officer

The pilot project targets patients ages 65-89 by testing their comprehension of the medical information and their reaction to the virtual physician’s explanation. The technology has not been implemented into the system’s patient portal, but researchers say they are looking for additional funding to continue making tweaks.