Podcast: Conversations with robots and the Star Trek tricorder

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Alison Darcy podcast

What does the future of healthcare look like? In some cases, it’s almost like science fiction has become a reality.

Mental health and wellness are entering this realm with therapeutic chatbots like Woebot Health. Founder Alison Darcy talks about the importance of clinical validation and how studies have shown that Woebot can not only engage deeply with users but also develop a bond of trust with them, often allowing them to broach topics they may not feel comfortable discussing with a human therapist.

While some may scoff at the notion of sharing their feelings with a chatbot, research has shown the opposite to be true. A University of California study, explained Alison, found that participants were more willing to disclose and have deeper conversations with artificial agents than when they think they’re talking to a human.

In fact, this seems to be more so the case when discussing personal issues that still carry stigma, such as STDs or drug use, she added.

Relatedly, what many assume is unique to human-to-human interaction can also be replicated, at least in the case of Woebot. We’re talking about the necessity of establishing a bond of trust with your therapist in order to have meaningful sessions

Clinically validated studies have shown that Woebot users form a bond with the therapeutic chatbot in as little as three days. It is “as valid as the bond a patient develops with their human therapist” explains Alison.

Bringing medical imaging to the masses

Meanwhile, the ultrasound machine is getting a makeover. Nevada Sanchez, co-founder of Butterfly network talks about shrinking it down into a device that plugs into an iPhone, making medical imaging more affordable and accessible.

Traditional ultrasound is a mainframe on wheels while Butterfly’s technology is better, cheaper, and smaller, explains Nevada. “Traditionally medical imaging requires a professional monographer to capture images and a professional radiographer to interpret the image. How can we take this technology upstream to the primary care providers, the nurses, the extended care providers, and event he patients themselves? We can literally print dozens of ultrasound machines on a wafer.

This device is a little like the medical tricorder from Star Trek in that it can scan the entire body and, with AI onboard, it can make sense of the scan in minutes.

It is already being ssed in remote villages in sub saharan Africa and places experiencing conditions outside traditional healthcare settings, said Nevada

He explained that in one use case an end user is trained to find fluid in the lungs using this device and a smartphone. But user experience, or UX, is key because “that kind of in-person training doesn’t scale when you’re trying to access 4 million people”.

Butterfly’s device not only shows images from a body scan but also gives the answers an end user needs. There is a platform that allows professional stenographers to guide people remotely but there is also AI can take on the role of the medical professional by leveraging deep learning to help make sense of the images.

Both of these examples of the future of healthcare rely on good UX, but what does that mean? As Alison explained, “a really good healthcare experience is one you hardly notice. It’s continuous, it’s integrated, it’s data driven, it’s personal, and it is tailored towards you.”

Nevada Sanchez, co-founder & VP of core technology at Butterfly Network and Alison Darcy, founder of Woebot Health, were in conversation with Rob Pegoraro of USA Today on the HealthConf stage at Web Summit 2021.

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Main image: Web Summit

A photograph of a person (Daniel Yanisse, co-founder of Checkr) speaking onstage at Web Summit. They are sitting on a chair and wearing a headset microphone, while gesturing with their hands. The Web Summit branding is visible behind them.

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