Chatbots are used for a variety of tasks: ordering pizza, getting product suggestions via Facebook Messenger and receiving online customer support. But can they cope with death?
A three-year clinical study with financial backing of more than $1 million from the National Institutes of Health is exploring whether a chatbot can help terminally ill, geriatric patients with their end-of-life care.
Over the next three years, Northeastern University professor Timothy Bickmore and Boston Medical Center doctor Michael Paasche-Orlow will distribute Microsoft Surface tablets preloaded with a chatbot to about 360 patients who have been told they have less than a year to live.
Designed in consultation with experts from Boston Medical Center and programmed by Bickmore and other Northeastern University researchers, the chatbot — which takes the form of a middle-age female digital character — is preloaded with a number of capabilities. These include clinical ones — such as gauging a patient's level of pain and keeping tabs on whether medication is being taken — as well as ones to improve a patient's quality of life. There are modules for talking about stress management and promoting exercise, a social chat feature if patients are just looking for someone to talk to, and even a module for spiritual counseling.
What Bickmore and Paasche-Orlow expect is that geriatric patients going through palliative care near the end of their lives will get use out of a tablet-based chatbot, and that having such a service available to hospitals and clinics will be valuable to patients long before they're in hospice care.
"Primary-care physicians don't think to call in palliative-care services until patients are incurable, when in fact the patient might have been in pain or could've used some kind of intervention beforehand," said Bickmore, associate dean for research in Northeastern University's College of Computer and Information Science.
Today about 90 million Americans live with a serious illness, according to the Center to Advance Palliative Care. This number is expected to double over the next 25 years as the baby boomer generation ages.