CDC's 'virtual human' relays prostate cancer info through candid conversations

The interactive tool tackles prostate cancer symptoms, screening and treatment. Providers can use it during a clinical encounter to facilitate conversation.
By Dave Muoio
02:59 pm

Last month, the CDC launched a prostate cancer information program with a uniquely digital face: a "virtual human" named Nathan who speaks with men about screening and treatment.

"Talk to Someone About Prostate Cancer" takes the form of an in-browser interactive video developed by health simulation company Kognito, where Nathan introduces himself and prompts the viewer by asking how confident they are talking to their provider about prostate cancer screening. Users indicate their response by clicking one of several text responses, prompting a relevant reply, and kicking off a series of question and answer conversation trees.

Accompanying the interactive tool on the CDC's site is a resource center with more information about the disease, relevant health tips, statistics, screening risks, and other basic guidance and recommendations. The public health agency notes that the patient-facing tools are also designed for use by providers during a clinical encounter to support shared decision-making skills.

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Prostate cancer is among the most common cancers in American men. Thirteen in 100 men will develop prostate cancer during their lifetime, and two or three will die due to it, according to the CDC. Symptoms of the condition greatly vary or do not develop at all, underscoring the need for middle-aged men to speak with their doctor about whether or not they should undergo screening.

But despite the cancer's prevalence, the CDC noted in a blog post unveiling Nathan that "the decision to be screened and treated for prostate cancer can be overwhelming and complicated." Some of this is driven by discomfort and long-identified stigma regarding the digital rectal examination, which some doctors use to identify abnormal growth (but which stopped being recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in 2018, in favor of a prostate specific antigen test).

Virtual health engagement tools that employ digital avatars can help some patients open up about difficult-to-discuss topics, providing a new way for individuals to become more engaged in their care.


CDC's virtual conversation effort comes after this summer's "Access Initiative for Quitting Tobacco," a pilot launched by the World Health Organization. It combines free nicotine replacement therapies and conversations with a similar digital human named Florence. That free tool used a microphone and artificial intelligence to interpret spoken questions and prompts from the user, and responded accordingly.


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