Boston researchers use AI chatbot to guide patients through end-of-life care

A research team in Boston is in the midst of a three-year clinical study investigating whether an artificial intelligence chatbot is able to help terminally ill geriatric patients navigate end-of-life care, CNBC reports.

Timothy Bickmore, PhD, a professor and associate dean for research at Boston-based Northeastern University, and Michael Paasche-Orlow, MD, a physician at Boston Medical Center and associate professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine, are leading the study, which is funded with more than $1 million from the National Institutes of Health.

The researchers will provide 360 geriatric patients — each of whom is expected to live for less than one year, but have not yet been placed in hospice care — with Microsoft Surface tablets. The tablets are preloaded with the chatbot, which takes the form of a middle-aged woman.

The chatbot aims to assess a patient's pain symptoms and medication adherence and to support the patient with stress management and simulated conversation. Nurses monitor these interactions, and are able to intervene or alert a family member in various situations.

One of the questions the researchers seek to address is whether patients in palliative care prefer to speak with a chatbot about sensitive end-of-life conversations, rather than a human being.

In an initial lab study, Dr. Bickmore and Dr. Paasche-Orlow tested the chatbot with 44 participants above the age of 55. The researchers found that after a 30-minute conversation about topics like end-of-life preparation with the chatbot, the majority of participants reported a significant decrease in anxiety when thinking about death.

"It turns out that patients were very happy to talk with a computer about it," Dr. Paasche-Orlow told CNBC. "They were very explicit in telling us, 'The doctor never asked me about these things.'"

More articles on artificial intelligence:
Study: AI health coach improves weight loss among obese individuals
Brown researchers to add medication reminders to Hasbro's animatronic pets for seniors
Google targets healthcare in AI accelerator's 1st class 

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