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Health software company begins diabetes coach trials

Health

UPDATE: A health software company specialising in “relational agents” for assistive care has begun trials of its new diabetes coach program in the United States.

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South Australian company Clevertar is running the trials in Pennsylvania as it progresses its plan of reaching global markets with its “Anna Cares” software.

The company has also received a $600,000 investment from third-party partner Konica Minolta and $420,000 in funding from the Australian Government to help it expand.

About 29 million, or almost 10 per cent of the United States’ population is living with diabetes. As health costs spiral and the population ages, Clevertar plans to use the diabetes prototype for other non-communicable chronic diseases in the future.

Anna Cares is a cloud-based solution that allows health care professionals to keep in contact with clients in their homes and to check that they are taking their medications and taking part in daily activities.

Dr Martin Luerssen, the co-founder of Clevertar and its flagship Anna Cares software, says an agent is just a program that can operate in an independent way but a relational agent builds a relationship with the user.

“When we think about relationships we don't really think about a relationship to a computer. We think about relationships with people,” Dr Luerssen says. “Why is that? What is it that makes humans so special?

“Love, friendship, things like that – those are the stronger relationships. You could say 'I love my car, I love my computer', but usually that doesn't mean the same thing. It's obvious that humans have something unique about them. Trying to reproduce that on a computer is what we're all about.”

Dr Luerssen specialises in applying biological processes to machine learning. He was a key part of ‘The Thinking Head’ research program at Flinders University in South Australia, which aimed to streamline computer and human communication. Clevertar is a spin off from that research, an evidence-based solution for care providers.

The diabetes coaching application builds on the current Anna Cares product which provides a range of personalised reminders and prompts, from medical appointments to daily routines, to give users reliable advice via their iPad or mobile device (iOS or Android).

It can hook in to the Cloud and report that information to carers or family members.

After the diabetes coach trials at the Leigh High Valley Health Network, the Clevertar wants to make Anna Cares more readily available, helping to reduce the cost of aged care and disability services.

“When we think about relationships we don't really think about a relationship to a computer. We think about relationships with people,” Dr Luerssen says. “Why is that? What is it that makes humans so special?

“Love, friendship, things like that – those are the stronger relationships. You could say 'I love my car, I love my computer', but usually that doesn't mean the same thing. It's obvious that humans have something unique about them. Trying to reproduce that on a computer is what we're all about.”

In an aged care setting, Anna’s responsibilities might include providing medication reminders, notifications for appointments and conveying messages to and from carers, family members or friends.

“The problem for carers is that they can’t be everywhere at all times. With this particular app, you have more of an insight into your population of patients. This virtual ‘person’ will now be present at all times,” Dr Luerssen explains.

“If a patient has a problem, some real person can be alerted to that. Support teams can just attend to people who have problems, rather than having to tend to everyone to find out they didn’t really have to be there,” he says.

Staff use a web-based client that tracks information for everyone under their care. They can remotely add appointments or send messages, keep track of eating habits and more.

Carers can have a better view of their population's wellbeing and status with Anna Cares.

Research has shown that this type of ‘relational agent’ has potential to help with any sort of health condition that can improve with a change in behaviour.

“If you need someone to stop smoking, or to do more exercise outdoors, a relational agent can help with that,” Dr Luerssen says. “One study showed that interacting with a virtual character which encouraged you to do more exercise was more effective than an ordinary computer program.

“Part of the reason is that a character would be really disappointed when you didn’t do your exercise. People see it’s disappointed. It’s obvious the program isn’t a real person, but it’s this social feeling of ‘Oh my god, I disappointed someone'.”

It is also harder to lie to a virtual character that looks and reacts like a human – if you’re supposed to be eating healthy and had a hamburger for lunch, it will be harder to get that past Anna.

“Our brains are superficial,” says Dr Luerssen. “When we see somebody and they look like a human, you will instinctively treat them differently than a little square box with text on it.”

 “We’re creating a person that you can turn to when you need some help.”

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story.

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