Why the Center for Body Computing is "virtualizing" human doctors

By Jonah Comstock

While several startups have experimented with virtual doctor and nurse avatars, at the Center for Body Computing (CBC) at USC, researchers are taking the idea one step further. They're creating virtualized versions of actual living, breathing doctors -- starting with CBC Executive Director Dr. Leslie Saxon herself. 

"That’s the virtual me," Saxon said on-stage at BIO 2016 in San Francisco, indicating an image of her avatar. "You see virtual characters all the time, but they’re very expensive. It’s $3 million to create Kevin Spacey or a football player. We have a way of prototyping me that takes 30 seconds and can animate gestures and voice recognition. So we’ve done that."

Saxon showed a video in which a hypertension patient takes home an app with Saxon's animated likeness. The virtual Saxon informs the patient of exactly why the new hypertension drug Saxon prescribed is a better, safer option for patients in his demographic. 

"In that scenario I had recommended the patient use a new blood thinner versus the blood thinner he’s on," Saxon explained. "The data we presented, he couldn’t get anywhere on the open market, not on Google, not anywhere because that tells him exactly his data and risk of benefiting, his major outcomes. … This is truly on-demand content that’s going to create an unprecedented amount of medical literacy. We were ale to scour the literature and look at how many 55-year-old African-American men were treated with that condition and what was their benefit."

In the Q&A, Saxon expounded on the virtualized human project, part of the Center's Virtual Care Clinic initiative. 

"The first iteration is frequently asked questions," she said. "You ask me something, I have 70,000 answers programmed into the virtual me. Then as we collect data, we add sensors, we start adding diagnosis. Eventually we go through all the requirements where my virtual human can be thinking and prescriptive. But we have to do a lot of research before we show that [virtual humans are] smart enough to do that. Or I might be brought in at the end, you get my virtual human for 30 minutes and I pop in for the last five. We’re playing around with things like that."

She shared that in various studies, including some in which virtual therapists are used to treat PTSD in returing veterans, patients have shown more willingness to open up to avatars than to real humans. 

"They found that returning war fighters were much more apt to disclose PTSD to a virtual human agent versus a real one," she said. "Why? Virtual humans don’t judge you."

These aren't just experiments for the sake of experiments, Saxon said. She sees virtualized physicians as a way to maximize meaningful time spent with patients and make sure healthcare resources are used efficiently and patients practice at the top of their license.

"Finally the healthcare system is seeing that the providers are their biggest and most expensive asset," she said. "So they need to leverage us over larger populations for less money. We can virtualize every expert, have them do consults and give real knowledge through these virtual capabilities. If it meets patients’ needs and they disclose more, even better."