The Virtual Care Clinic delivers digital healthcare to patients

A visit to the doctor often means long waits or stuffy sitting rooms scattered with outdated magazines. In a joint project between Keck School of Medicine of USC, USC’s Center for Body Computing and USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, a team of doctors, researchers and creative directors are working on a new model of healthcare delivery that will redefine how patients receive care.

The Virtual Care Clinic is a service-based digital platform that incorporates diverse functions in healthcare delivery, from connecting patients to healthcare professionals to collecting data that can be used to inform future treatments. The VCC is special because it can be accessed anywhere from a user’s mobile device, allowing patients to easily receive attention from their doctors without physically entering a clinic or hospital.

Cardiologist Leslie Saxon, executive director for the Center for Body Computing and professor of clinical medicine at Keck Medical School, said that this project is groundbreaking.

“I think we’re definitely one of the first digital health entities other than [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], which has quite a different area of focus in digital health,” Saxon said. “I think what’s really unique about ours is this ICT partnership and the creative, virtual human aspect which is very unique to us.“

The ICT is a research center specializing in emergent forms of digital technology, including artificial intelligence, computer graphics and immersive techniques such as virtual reality, mixed reality and augmented reality.

Clarke Lethin, managing director of the ICT, said that government agencies are important for ICT.

“The research is funded by a number of government agencies looking at how do we take digital technologies and leverage those digital technologies for learning, education, training and behavior modification,” Lethin said.

Technology and research from the ICT is being applied to the VCC in an effort to creatively enhance user experience where other digital platforms may fall short. The VCC incorporates digital avatars of healthcare professionals that stand in for their human counterparts in basic check-ins and health instruction.

Prototypes for these digital avatars include a full computer-generated representation of Saxon, which is capable of presenting general instructions and asking simple questions. This technology allows the world of healthcare to go digital while preserving some of the warmth of the patient-doctor relationship.

“The institute has extensive research in not only creating these virtual humans,” Lethin said. “We also study the impact on the user and how well the user is relating to that virtual human as being something real, embodied, having emotions, delivering the content in such a way that’s meaningful.”

The research has uncovered that users become more likely to divulge information when they believe it is anonymous, making the platform potentially useful for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety disorders.

“We have to create that killer healthcare product that really resonates with people,” Saxon said.

The team has high ambitions for the VCC, wanting it to be more than a service but a model for global health efforts that will impact the entire world.

The VCC has potential to solve complications in healthcare delivery. Physicians will spend less time answering mundane questions and collecting data for compliance and more time on the complicated care, which will increase quality. Simultaneously, the patients will receive increased contact and personalized care from their doctors.

“Between Leslie’s work and position at Keck Medical and the Center for Body Computing, all part of USC, ICT interfaces with Viterbi, with Annenberg, with Marshall, with Roski, [and has] a strong affiliation with the School of Cinema,” Lethin said. “It’s a multidisciplined approach to a very complex problem, and USC is sitting on that cusp of being able to leverage all of that talent and all of those schools to really solve a difficult problem.”

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