Spoiler alert: avatars may have practical uses beyond gaming.

In fact the team at USC’s Center for Body Computing believe holograms will one day serve as medical professionals. And the future is closer than you think.

Avatars and Holograms fall under the umbrella of Digital Therapeutics, a segment of the digital health industry defined by Indu Subaiya at Health 2.0 as a range of products from therapeutics that are digitally connected to drugs to software used as intervention. Don Jones, Chief Digital Officer at Scripps’ Translational Science Institute and who is also involved with USC’s Center for Body Computing views the digital therapeutics sector as anything molecular, software, or hardware that can be used to provide therapeutic benefits.

It’s really an extension of the Internet of Things and arguably the future of Pharma.

At Health 2.0’s WinterTech event earlier this month Don presented an interview between Matt Lauer (whoops, they weren’t able to edit him out) and a Holocaust survivor. The interview is dynamic and conversational and serves as a use case for how such holograms could interact with humans in medical environments in the near future. Don imagines the power of avatars being used in medicinal and coaching environments and education environments like genetic counseling and diabetes education. And in case you’re hesitating and not totally bought in yet, know that the United States Army is already using holograms for psychological counseling. Soldiers are given the option whether they’d like a real or virtual psychologist, and as it turns out, 75% self select for the virtual. As Don notes, the idea here is of transforming the 1:1 relationship into a 1:10,000 relationship, thus delivering care to a greater number of people.

Hesitations still flourish in my mind, such as questions regarding whether the quality of care provided by an avatar is up to parr. Leslie Saxon, who leads USC’s Center for Body Computing clarifies avatars are not meant to replace humans entirely, but rather act as a triage mechanism in order to free up doctors from time-intensive administrative work in order to do more high level thinking and care delivery in their specialty instead. These avatars are “fueled by artificial intelligence so it gets smarter and smarter,” she says. “The virtual human me is smarter than me. She’s informed by the guidelines, she’s up to date, she’s delivering the information in a standardized way.”

That’s hard to argue with, especially when touting the larger, mission-based goal of delivering lower-cost, highly accessible care to more people. The question is though, can digital therapeutics really act as a replacement for honest to goodness human interaction? And at what level? I may concede to seeing an avatar to diagnose a UTI, but it’s unlikely I’ll want to when addressing more serious or chronic conditions. For instance, will Dr. Avatar understand empathy? Will it remember that story I told about the last family vacation my mother was on before she got sick? Will they put a hand on my shoulder when health care gets scary? Obviously, not the latter, but there are so many questions that arise when proposing that visiting the doctor may not actually include a real doctor. It seems so much less… personal.

But as they say, don’t knock it til you try it.

For more, watch this short clip to see Leslie’s team in action at the USC Center for Body Computing.

Watch this presentation by Don Jones at WinterTech followed by a subsequent interview with Indu Subaiya, time stamps 0:00 – 14:00.


by Grace Moen – Health 2.0’s resident writer.