Too often, patients are embarrassed or unwilling to admit certain behaviors or incidents to their doctors, resulting in misdiagnoses and incorrect prescriptions. But a recently published study found that patients are more likely to speak honestly about private health matters with computer-created entities than with humans. “The power of VH (virtual human) interviewers to elicit more honest responding comes from the sense that no one is observing or judging,” note the researchers, led by Gale Lucas of the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Lucas and her colleagues conducted an experiment featuring 239 adults. Each participant interacted with a virtual human seen on a computer screen. Half the participants were told that their conversation was entirely computer-driven and not being observed, and the other half were informed that someone in another room was watching them and manipulating the machine to ask certain questions. Participants “reported significantly lower fear of self-disclosure” when they were told they were speaking exclusively with the computer, with one participant stating it was “way better than talking to a person.”
Though much of connected health strives to increase interaction and contact between patients and doctors rather than reduce it, this is one way in which digital devices can be used to help patients feel more at ease and improve treatments and outcomes.