Avatars could help minority women with preconception care

A recent study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion examines the use of an avatar to identify preconception risks for certain sects of young women. The avatar, dubbed "Gabby" "emulates face-to-face conversational behavior similar to that of an empathetic clinician and can display nonverbal communicative behavior such as gazes, postures and hand gestures," according to InformationWeek Healthcare.

The aim of the study, according to the authors, was to boost pregnancy outcomes by improving the health of women and "mitigating risk factors prior to pregnancy." However, they said, doing so involves addressing several issues like family planning, specific medical conditions and preventive behaviors. Rates of poor reproductive health have disproportionately affected young women in the minority and lower socioeconomic classes, according to the authors.

Users could access Gabby on any computer with Internet access. The avatar screened women for their preconception care risks; determined readiness for behavior change, specific to a risk; educated women about their risks; and helped them create a to-do list. According to the authors, women controlled conversations with Gabby by clicking on the appropriate button for how they wanted to respond, such as "Yes, let's talk more" or "No thanks."

Participants thought it was important for the avatar to have "layers," and appear like a regular person they'd know or could relate to. Feedback was mixed on whether participants would prefer to talk to Gabby or a regular doctor, but many viewed the avatar as a valuable addition to healthcare visits.

Healthcare consultant and blogger Christina Thielst, told InformationWeek that she thinks avatars will be huge in healthcare soon. Thielst said avatars are a form of closed-loop communication, which doesn't just offer information to patients, but also makes sure that patients understand, and communicate back based on the patient's response.

Avatar training has been a hit for other demographics, too. Recently, high school students were excited about CPR training using video-game technology and utilizing avatars controlled by an instructor in different scenarios. In addition, virtual coaches that engage with participants to devise goals have proved effective for weight loss and fitness, as a study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research determined last year.

To learn more:
- read the study
- read the article from InformationWeek Healthcare

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