Looking for a nurse with a calm, patient bed­side manner?

A North­eastern researcher has cre­ated an empa­thetic vir­tual nurse to help patients about to be dis­charged from a hos­pital stay under­stand and follow their care instructions.

According to Tim­othy Bick­more, assis­tant pro­fessor of com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ence, and the devel­oper of the vir­tual nurse, “Post-​​discharge self-​​care reg­i­mens are typ­i­cally com­plex, with the average patient going away with 10 med­ica­tions and mul­tiple follow-​​up appoint­ments. The dis­charge is even more haz­ardous for patients who have dif­fi­culty reading and fol­lowing basic written med­ical instructions.”

On average, a pre-​​discharge con­ver­sa­tion that out­lines care instruc­tions lasts fewer than eight min­utes. Yet it’s a sig­nif­i­cant tran­si­tion in med­ical care, intended to trans­form patients from pas­sive recip­i­ents to active par­tic­i­pants in their recovery.

The vir­tual nurse Bick­more has devel­oped is designed to give pre-​​discharge patients more infor­ma­tion. The ani­ma­tion can be brought to a patient’s bed­side via a com­puter on a wheeled kiosk. The patient is able to con­trol the inter­ac­tion with a touch-​​screen dis­play. Typ­i­cally, patients spend about 30 min­utes with the vir­tual nurse, reviewing an “After-​​Hospital Care Plan” booklet they have been given.

A three-​​year clin­ical trial of the vir­tual nurse began at Boston Med­ical Center in fall 2008. The trial will ulti­mately enroll 750 patients; 220 have par­tic­i­pated so far.

Results to date indi­cate that low health lit­eracy patients find the system easy to use, and even prefer­able to receiving the infor­ma­tion from a live doctor or nurse.

Patients also express appre­ci­a­tion for the time and atten­tion the vir­tual nurse gives them, and see her as an addi­tional author­i­ta­tive source for their med­ical infor­ma­tion, says Bickmore.

The research is the result of a col­lab­o­ra­tion between Bick­more and the Boston Med­ical Center, and is spon­sored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Insti­tute of the National Insti­tutes of Health, and the Agency for Health­care Research and Quality.