Background: Digital health agents — embodied conversational agents designed specifically for health interventions — provide a promising alternative or supplement to behavioral health services by reducing barriers to access to care. Objective: Our goals were to (1) develop an expressive, speech-enabled digital health agent operating in a 3-dimensional virtual environment to deliver a brief behavioral health intervention over the internet to reduce alcohol use and to (2) understand its acceptability, feasibility, and utility with its end users.
Methods: We developed an expressive, speech-enabled digital health agent with facial expressions and body gestures operating in a 3-dimensional virtual office and able to deliver a brief behavioral health intervention over the internet to reduce alcohol use. We then asked 51 alcohol users to report on the digital health agent acceptability, feasibility, and utility.
Results: The developed digital health agent uses speech recognition and a model of empathetic verbal and nonverbal behaviors to engage the user, and its performance enabled it to successfully deliver a brief behavioral health intervention over the internet to reduce alcohol use. Descriptive statistics indicated that participants had overwhelmingly positive experiences with the digital health agent, including engagement with the technology, acceptance, perceived utility, and intent to use the technology. Illustrative qualitative quotes provided further insight about the potential reach and impact of digital health agents in behavioral health care.
Conclusions: Web-delivered interventions delivered by expressive, speech-enabled digital health agents may provide an exciting complement or alternative to traditional one-on-one treatment. They may be especially helpful for hard-to-reach communities with behavioral workforce shortages.
Full article available here: Boustani, Lunn, Viser, Lisetti (2021)