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Telemedicine for physical therapy: The Avatar will see you now

June 18, 2013 | Telepresence Options

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Story and Images by Jessica Leber / ISPR

The Avatar Will See You Now

Medical centers are testing new, friendly ways to reduce the need for office visits by extending their reach into patients' homes.

Most patients who enter the gym of the San Mateo Medical Center in California are there to work with physical therapists. But a few who had knee replacements are being coached by a digital avatar instead.

The avatar, Molly, interviews them in Spanish or English about the levels of pain they feel as a video guides them through exercises, while the 3-D cameras of a Kinect device measure their movements. Because it's a pilot project, Paul Carlisle, the director of rehabilitation services, looks on. But the ultimate goal is for the routine to be done from a patient's home.

"It would change our whole model," says Carlisle, who is running the trial as the public hospital looks for creative ways to extend the reach of its overtaxed budget and staff. "We don't want to replace therapists. But in some ways, it does replace the need to have them there all the time."

Receiving remote medical care is becoming more common as technologies improve and health records get digitized.�Sense.ly, the California startup running the trial, is one of more than 500 companies using health-care tools from�Nuance, a company that develops speech-recognition and virtual-assistant software. "Our goal is basically to capture the patient's state of mind and body," says Ivana Schnur, cofounder of Sense.ly and a clinical psychologist who has spent years developing virtual-reality tools in medicine and mental health.

Using Sense.ly's platform, patients can communicate their condition to an emotionally reactive avatar through their phone, desktop, or TV. The avatar asks the patient simple questions, and if programmed by a doctor, it can answer questions too--such as what a diabetes patient with high blood-sugar readings should eat that day. The software also collects data from other medical devices that a patient uses, such as a glucose meter, and can capture gestures with a Kinect. The reports sent to the doctor include red-flag notifications to act on right away; charts, graphs, and analytics tracing the patient's progress over time; and a transcript of the voice interaction.

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