Can Virtual Pets Improve Elder Health Care?

November 15, 2017
Kerry Lengyel

Digital pet avatars — which meld technology and animal-assisted therapy — could be a game-changer that improves health care and reduces costs for a complex patient population.

Animal-assisted therapy has been proven to help humans in many ways, from dealing with cancer to feeling homesick. One social enterprise is now using a unique form of animal-assisted therapy to compete with the traditional models of elder care.

In a 3-month pilot study, digital pet avatars provided 10 elderly patients with companionship, support, and wellness coaching.

Interaction with the avatars reduced avoidable emergency room visits and decreased the need for in-home health care services among the elderly individuals in the pilot program; use of the avatars also lowered health care costs and improved continuity of care.

The avatars currently serve patients between age 50 and 85 years who have health risk factors such as heart failure, hypertension, diabetes, falls, cognitive impairment, anxiety, pulmonary disease, and more.

The simulated pets are the brainchild of care.coach, a company that aims to combine the best of human health care with software. The company was hired by Element Care, a health care organization that helps people live safely and comfortably in their homes and their communities for as long as they can, keeping their stays in hospitals and nursing facilities as minimal as possible.

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One care.coach avatar user, 64-year-old Patricia Richards, had repeatedly visited the hospital due to anxiety and shortness of breath related to smoking. After the loss of a family member, her anxiety worsened, leading to her need to visit even more frequently.

After being selected for a virtual pet, Richards now calls on her digital cat Bella when she feels lonely or needs someone to bend an ear. “I love Bella very, very much,” Richards said. “She’s helpful ... she does a lot of things for me and I’m so happy she’s in my house.”

Besides talking to and reassuring Richards whenever she feels anxious, Bella also checks to make sure Richards has taken her medication and plays music Richards likes; the avatars can also display preloaded photos for patients.

The avatars are managed by a specially trained, background-checked, and insured team of health advocates who are available 24/7 to provide users with compassionate conversation and nonclinical support. Visible as either a dog or cat, staff can see and hear users and voice the pets’ responses with a text-to-speech system.

Bella has singlehandedly prevented 13 emergency room visits for Richards so far.

“Our highest success is [with] some of these lonely individuals who just need a little bit of extra help and attention,” said Kendra Seavey, clinical services project administrator for Element Care.

Among surveyed participants in the pilot program, 54% stated that their degree of loneliness improved, 46% stated that their nervousness or anxiety decreased, and 23% stated that their quality of life was better while using the avatar. Overall, 95% of patients with an avatar would recommend the service to a friend.

Care.coach health care coordinators agreed that the results were excellent: 57% reported improvements in medication adherence for patients, and 88% would recommend care.coach for their own parents.

There are only 15 current users of the digital pet avatars, but Element Care is now looking make these devices more widespread.