Online Health Apps Work Better When They ‘talk’ Like Doctors

Online Health Apps Work Better When They ‘talk’ Like Doctors

Going to the doctor’s office is a drag—all the forms to fill out, the waiting, and then those other forms, and then the waiting, and the flipping through months-old copies of Time.

With that challenge, a new crop of e-medicine apps have started to mature and are poised to help fill in the times when we can’t, or don’t want to, go for office visit. “We are seeing a growth in e-medicine,” said S. Shyam Sundar, Ph.D., co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory and co-author of a recent Penn State study on the subject. “People are trying to compensate for this lack of face-to-face time with doctors by using online tools, which are becoming increasingly conversational.”

There’s one catch: Those online tools aren’t quite ready. But there is a key indicator of what makes them successful, according to Sundar’s new study.

In the study, Sundar and colleagues investigated how online health risk assessment websites can be tweaked to better help patients, and get them to act upon the tool’s recommendations. They found that when there’s a back-and-forth communication between the automated site and the person, patients were much more likely to follow the advice. “When you are having this back-and-forth interaction with a system, you are having a conversation with that system,” said Sundar. “This shows that delivering information on health risks through dialogue can help users get engaged with the tool and may positively affect their health.”

But researchers found that the tone of that advice can play an important role whether or not the patient takes the advice. When a soft tone with informal, shorter phrases like “Mm-hmm” and “Go on” were used, the 172 students enrolled in the study felt like they weren’t really vulnerable to the health risks conveyed in the assessment. Study authors suggest that future online health tools could tailor the conversation’s tone to the needs of the patient—those who need comfort would get the softer phrases, while those who need to take action on serious health risks could get a sterner voice.

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