Can virtual human clinicians help close the gap in colorectal cancer screening for rural adults in the United States? The influence of rural identity on perceptions of virtual human clinicians

Prev Med Rep. 2022 Oct 28;30:102034. doi: 10.1016/j.pmedr.2022.102034. eCollection 2022 Dec.


Rural adults experience disparities in colorectal cancer screening, a trend even more distinct among rural Black adults. Healthcare disruptions caused by COVID-19 exacerbated inequities, heightening attention on virtual communication strategies to increase screening. Yet little is known about how rural adults perceive virtual human clinicians (VHCs). Given that identifying as rural influences perceived source credibility often through appearance judgments, the goal of this pilot was to explore how to develop VHCs that individuals highly identified with rurality find attractive. Between November 2018 and April 2019, we tested a culturally tailored, VHC-led telehealth intervention delivering evidence-based colorectal cancer prevention education with White and Black adults (N = 2079) in the United States recruited through an online panel who were non-adherent to screening guidelines and between 50 and 73 years of age. Participants were randomized on three factors (VHC race-matching, VHC gender-matching, Intervention type). Ordinal logistic regression models examined VHC appearance ratings. Participants with a high rural identity (AOR = 1.12, CI = [1.02, 1.23], p =.02) rated the VHCs more attractive. High rural belonging influenced VHC attractiveness for Black participants (AOR = 1.22, CI = [1.03, 1.44], p =.02). Also, Black participants interacting with a Black VHC and reporting high rural self-concept rated the VHC as more attractive (AOR = 2.22, CI = [1.27, 3.91], p =.01). Findings suggest adults for whom rural identity is important have more positive impressions of VHC attractiveness. For patients with strong rural identities, enhancing VHC appearance is critical to tailoring colorectal cancer prevention interventions.

Keywords: ALEX, Agent Leveraging Empathy for eXams; Cancer screening disparities; Health communication; Rural health; VHC, virtual human clinician; Virtual human technology.