A Protocol-Driven, Bedside Digital Conversational Agent to Support Nurse Teams and Mitigate Risks of Hospitalization in Older Adults: Case Control Pre-Post Study

J Med Internet Res. 2019 Oct 17;21(10):e13440. doi: 10.2196/13440.


Background: Hospitalized older adults often experience isolation and disorientation while receiving care, placing them at risk for many inpatient complications, including loneliness, depression, delirium, and falls. Embodied conversational agents (ECAs) are technological entities that can interact with people through spoken conversation. Some ECAs are also relational agents, which build and maintain socioemotional relationships with people across multiple interactions. This study utilized a novel form of relational ECA, provided by Care Coach (care.coach, inc): an animated animal avatar on a tablet device, monitored and controlled by live health advocates. The ECA implemented algorithm-based clinical protocols for hospitalized older adults, such as reorienting patients to mitigate delirium risk, eliciting toileting needs to prevent falls, and engaging patients in social interaction to facilitate social engagement. Previous pilot studies of the Care Coach avatar have demonstrated the ECA's usability and efficacy in home-dwelling older adults. Further study among hospitalized older adults in a larger experimental trial is needed to demonstrate its effectiveness.

Objective: The aim of the study was to examine the effect of a human-in-the-loop, protocol-driven relational ECA on loneliness, depression, delirium, and falls among diverse hospitalized older adults.

Methods: This was a clinical trial of 95 adults over the age of 65 years, hospitalized at an inner-city community hospital. Intervention participants received an avatar for the duration of their hospital stay; participants on a control unit received a daily 15-min visit from a nursing student. Measures of loneliness (3-item University of California, Los Angeles Loneliness Scale), depression (15-item Geriatric Depression Scale), and delirium (confusion assessment method) were administered upon study enrollment and before discharge.

Results: Participants who received the avatar during hospitalization had lower frequency of delirium at discharge (P<.001), reported fewer symptoms of loneliness (P=.01), and experienced fewer falls than control participants. There were no significant differences in self-reported depressive symptoms.

Conclusions: The study findings validate the use of human-in-the-loop, relational ECAs among diverse hospitalized older adults.

Keywords: chatbot; delirium; digital health; embodied conversational agent; falls; information and communication technology; loneliness; older adults; relational agent.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Communication
  • Female
  • Hospitalization / trends*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Male
  • Nurses
  • Pilot Projects
  • Telemedicine / methods*