North­eastern Uni­ver­sity researcher Tim­othy Bick­more has been awarded a five-​​year, $3.5 mil­lion National Cancer Insti­tute grant to develop computer-​​animated con­ver­sa­tional agents that guide cancer patients through the oncology clin­ical trial process.

Bick­more, an assis­tant pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, said descrip­tions of clin­ical trials can be com­plex, and that health com­pli­ca­tions often arise from patients not under­standing written med­ical instruc­tions. Bick­more will col­lab­o­rate with Dr. Michael Paasche-​​Orlow at Boston Med­ical Center (BMC), a national expert on health lit­eracy. The project will target BMC patients with lim­ited health knowledge.

At the core of what we’re doing is trying to make those study pro­to­cols more under­stand­able and easy to follow for patients,” Bick­more said.

Under the pro­posal, patients sit­ting at a hos­pital kiosk or their home com­puter will interact first with an ani­mated con­ver­sa­tional agent, who will appear on a touch-​​screen to ask them about their con­di­tion and back­ground. The agent will present the patients with a list of active trials they qualify for, and describe what each study entails.

When patients arrive at the hos­pital for their trials, an ani­mated agent will walk them through informed– con­sent doc­u­ments and assess their level of com­pre­hen­sion. Later, patients will interact with the system through their home com­puters or smart phones pro­vided by the hos­pital to receive reminders about follow-​​up appoint­ments and med­ica­tion sched­ules, and to report any health con­cerns or illnesses.

Over the last decade, Bick­more has been devel­oping and studying inno­v­a­tive con­ver­sa­tional com­puter agents that build strong rela­tion­ships with patients and counsel them on var­ious health-​​related topics, including a novel “vir­tual nurse” system to guide patients through the hos­pital dis­charge process and help them follow health care instruc­tions, which has been licensed for pos­sible com­mer­cial use.

Bick­more said in past studies, patients with low health lit­eracy have reported the use of con­ver­sa­tional agents to be helpful.

The National Cancer Insti­tute is part of the National Insti­tutes of Health, and the grant was funded through NIH’s Eth­ical Issues In Human Sub­jects Research program.

Ulti­mately, Bick­more said he envi­sions this type of research leading to patients being able to use their per­sonal smart phones as “health bud­dies” that will help them mon­itor all aspects of their health. He said this could involve pre­ven­ta­tive mea­sures with reminders to take med­ica­tions, exer­cise, and stay on a diet. It could also help people com­mu­ni­cate with health care providers.

The project advances Northeastern’s research mis­sion to develop inno­v­a­tive, use-​​inspired solu­tions to global chal­lenges, with a focus on health, secu­rity, and sustainability.