North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, the Boston Med­ical Center and Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nology have entered into a licensing agree­ment with Engi­neered Care, a San Francisco-​​area health­care soft­ware com­pany, to pursue com­mer­cial­iza­tion of vir­tual nursing soft­ware devel­oped by North­eastern com­puter sci­ence pro­fessor Tim­othy Bickmore.

The soft­ware fea­tures a computer-​​animated nurse, “Louise,” who talks patients though the hos­pital dis­charge process and assesses their under­standing of med­ical instructions.

Post-​​discharge self-​​care reg­i­mens are typ­i­cally com­plex, with the average patient going away with 10 med­ica­tions and mul­tiple follow-​​up appoint­ments,” said Bick­more. “The dis­charge is even more haz­ardous for patients who have dif­fi­culty reading and fol­lowing basic written med­ical instruc­tions.” Despite this level of com­plexity, he said, the average pre-​​discharge con­ver­sa­tion out­lining care instruc­tions lasts fewer than eight minutes.

According to Dr. Brian Jack, a physi­cian at the Boston Med­ical Center, nearly 20 per­cent of dis­charged patients are even­tu­ally read­mitted to the hos­pital within a month due to low health lit­eracy and insuf­fi­cient knowl­edge of self-​​care med­ical instruc­tions. Nearly 30 per­cent of these read­mis­sions are pre­ventable with a more com­plete rein­force­ment of dis­charge direc­tions, said Jack. Reducing these pre­ventable read­mis­sions not only means healthier patients, but also lower health-​​care costs.

Louise is Bickmore’s solu­tion to the dis­charge issues that con­tribute to the hos­pital read­mis­sion rate. Using a touch screen, a patient inter­acts with Louise through an 11-​​step dis­charge process that takes an average of 52 min­utes, a pace that can be con­trolled by the patient. Louise asks about med­ica­tion reg­i­mens and follow-​​up visits. She also tai­lors her facial expres­sions and responses to the patient based upon the input patients pro­vide on their com­pre­hen­sion of the dis­charge mate­rial. Louise will also quiz the patient to assess theirun­der­standing of med­ical instruc­tions during the session.

In a pilot pro­gram at Boston Med­ical Center, nearly 450 patients used Louise, and the results were encour­aging, said Bick­more. “Patients in the trial group weren’t afraid to repeat­edly ask Louise for instruc­tions and didn’t feel rushed to move though the dis­charge process,” he said.

This tech­nology is one of many research projects at North­eastern moving towards com­mer­cial­iza­tion, said Jef­frey Kosiba, intel­lec­tual prop­erty man­ager in Northeastern’s Office of Tech­nology Inno­va­tion and Commercialization.

Engi­neered Care has been granted exclu­sive rights to imple­ment the tech­nology for patient dis­charge. The firm’s goal is to market the product both domes­ti­cally and glob­ally within the next three years.