Virtual Patient Advocates Help With Pre-Natal Care

Developed in Boston, these virtual helpers can help people on the go.

A virtual patient advocate will now interact with you through your computer. Photo via Shutterstock

A virtual patient advocate will now interact with you through your computer. Photo via Shutterstock

Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), Boston Medical Center (BMC), and Northeastern University developed “Gabby”, an innovative tool designed to deliver preconception care (PCC) to African-American women through interactive conversations online. A pilot study suggests that a virtual patient advocate (VPA) could help influence positive changes and help women have healthier pregnancies.

The study, published online in the American Journal of Health Promotion, suggests that Gabby could help identify risk factors and influence positive changes in women before they conceive and decrease the risk for adverse birth outcomes.

According to BMC, approximately half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned. According to the CDC, the fetal mortality rate for non-Hispanic African-American women in 2005 was 2.3 times the rate for non-Hispanic white women. “Because approximately half of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, delivering preconception care during general wellness visits could help reduce infant and maternal mortality rates,” says Dr. Paula Gardiner, the study’s first author, who is an assistant professor at BUSM, and a family medicine physician at BMC.

BMC says that previous research has shown that African-Americans prefer a VPA who is their same race and gender. So researchers conducted studies and gathered recommendations from participants about the name, gender, and physical appearance of the VPA. The results indicated that participants would feel comfortable discussing personal health topics with a VPA who was young and female. These results helped the researchers create Gabby.

Women 15 to 25 interact with Gabby online first by answering her questions about current health habits and conditions, and then users can pick from answers or write in their own. Gabby screens for risks and assesses whether they are ready to make lifestyle changes to decrease their risks. Based on participants’ responses, Gabby helps create a custom “My Health To-Do List,” which users can review and then share with their providers.

Researchers are recruiting for a randomized control trial to test whether participants who receive PCC with Gabby will have fewer preconception risk factors after six months than participants in a control group. They will enroll 100 young African-American women from across the country.

Want to check out Gabby in action? Here is a demo: