JAN 23, 2022 10:00 AM PST

A Chatbot Improved the Physical and Mental Health of Delayed-Surgery Patients

WRITTEN BY: Ryan Vingum

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world experienced widespread business shutdowns and shelter in place orders with the hope of curbing the spread of the virus early on. And as hospitals began to fill up with critical patients, though, non-essential care, such as elective surgery, was put on hold as well. That left many patients who needed certain surgeries waiting indefinitely to receive care they desperately needed.

But that doesn’t mean patients went without support. According to new research, patients who were waiting for knee and hip replacements, specifically, actually found support for both their physical and mental health from a rather unlikely source: a chatbot.

According to a study published in the Journal of Arthroplasty, researchers studied 90 participants for two weeks, each of whom had a knee or hip replacement surgery postponed.  Half of participants received two automated text messages a day from a “chatbot,” a computer designed to simulate human conversation and communication. The information in these texts was informed by acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). ACT is a psychotherapy technique that employs mindfulness and other strategies to help change an individual's behavior. Messages included language that was uplifting and reminding recipients to acknowledge pain but don’t let it consume them.

All participants received clinical assessments to monitor their overall health. When it came to mental health, researchers noted that more participants receiving the messages saw improvement in overall mental health compared to those who did not receive the messages. 

But researchers also noted something unexpected: significant, and positive, changes to participants' physical health, particularly joint-related pain. Almost 40% of participants receiving the texts saw a significant improvement in their overall pain levels.

The pandemic notwithstanding, the cancellation or rescheduling of surgeries is not uncommon. As the control group highlighted, knee and hip replacement patients often see a clinical decline in mental wellbeing and physical health while waiting for surgeries to be scheduled. As such, researchers believe their chatbot tool could be an effective tool for helping maintain a patient’s health leading up to a surgery. 

Sources: EurekaAlert!; Journal of Arthroplasty; Positive Psychology

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Science writer and editor, with a focus on simplifying complex information about health, medicine, technology, and clinical drug development for a general audience.
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