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Meet George Jetson, M.D.
The virtual doctor won't see you just yet. But that day is getting closer.
Today's health-care industry is making increasing use of Web-based virtual agents and avatars, or computerized assistants, not only to perform clerical duties but also to dispense medical information.
In Spain, an avatar named Osane for the past year has been helping visitors navigate the website of the Basque region's public-health system. Osane, an animated character, mainly helps users with clerical matters such as changing their physician or booking an appointment.
But she also can give basic advice on healthy living and common illnesses. Type into the chat window that you think your son has varicella, for example, and Osane will respond with a brief description of the symptoms of chickenpox and offer to help book an appointment with a pediatrician.
But Osane knows her limits. Tell her only that your son has a fever, and the avatar will say she is not a doctor.
Osane runs on software from Anboto, a Spanish start-up with offices in Boston and Silicon Valley. Its technology is also used by a Spanish health insurer, IMQ, to help customers navigate its website.
"Health care is a very broad sector with many potential applications for virtual agents," says Anboto Chief Executive Xabier Uribe-Etxebarria.
Most avatars in use in health care today handle administrative tasks and website navigation. The U.S. insurer Aetna Inc. introduced an avatar from Next IT Corp., of Spokane, Wash., on its website in 2010, partly to reduce the load on its call center.
Nevertheless, some experts believe the technology is ready to be used in a clinical context—though these applications are mainly at the research stage.
Timothy Bickmore, an associate professor at Boston's Northeastern University, used avatars in research aimed at helping hospital patients understand their discharge information. Many don't, and so run a greater risk of being readmitted. Mr. Bickmore says his three-year trial at a Boston hospital reduced readmissions by 30%.
Craig Mundie, Microsoft Corp.'s chief research and strategy officer, last year demonstrated the use of avatars and Microsoft's Xbox Kinect technology to facilitate group therapy sessions—the theory being that patients will feel less intimidated by an avatar than by a human group leader.
Cisco Systems Inc. has also demonstrated an avatar, named Patty, that counsels hospital patients. Patty gives the patients information on their treatment and allows them to ask questions they might be too embarrassed to ask a nurse or physician.
Northeastern's Mr. Bickmore says avatars have an attribute that health-care professionals often lack—patience.
"Many people prefer avatars to nurses for counseling because they do not feel rushed and can ask questions," he says
As new roles are explored for avatars in health care, experts say the key is to ensure the avatar recognizes its own boundaries and doesn't overstep them.
"You have to be particularly careful," Mr. Bickmore says, "with anything that involves human judgment or requires common-sense reasoning about the world."
Mr. Nairn is a technology journalist based in Spain. He can be reached at email@example.com.
A version of this article appeared April 16, 2012, on page R6 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Meet George Jetson, M.D..