Liam O'Toole

CEO of Arthritis UK

Arthritis Virtual Assistant: How artificial intelligence can help improve the lives of people with arthritis

Arthritis Research UK’s Chief Executive, Liam O’Toole, explains how artificial intelligence can help improve the lives of people with arthritis.

60 percent of adults have used a chatbot in last year, and 37 percent said they would be prepared to use one in the event of an emergency.

Why, as the chief executive of a health charity, would I be interested in chatbots? 17.8 million people in the UK live with a musculoskeletal (MSK) problem such as arthritis, back pain or osteoporosis. That’s a lot of people looking for clear, concise health information 24 hours a day. We know that some people prefer to talk to someone, so we have a helpline. Others like to browse our online information at their leisure. And for others, we recently took advantage of AI technology to launch a chatbot offering an easy way for people to quickly access the information they’re looking for.

Virtually assisting arthritis

Our new chat bot, called the Virtual Assistant, has the potential to revolutionise the lives of people living with arthritis - over ten million people in the UK. Using world class artificial intelligence technology, the Virtual Assistant can instantly answer arthritis-related questions at any time.

There are over 200 different musculoskeletal conditions and Arthritis Research UK have over 15,000 pages of information on these conditions. We have spent years developing quality, evidence-based information, and currently we have over six million visitors to our website every year.

However, for a person living with arthritis, there is a comprehensive selection of information to choose from, ranging from topics such as drug treatments, diet and appropriate forms of exercise. There’s so much information, it can be difficult to know where to start, so the Virtual Assistant is there to help get the right answer at the right time.

One of the key challenges faced by people with arthritis is managing their condition and remaining in, or finding suitable, work. Indeed, there were 30.8 million working days lost to musculoskeletal conditions in 2016, and people with MSK conditions are less likely to be in work than people without health conditions and are more likely to retire early.

Legal & General provide advice and support to people who have had to stop work because of arthritis and wish to claim on their income protection policy Recognising the importance of accessible information and support for their customers, Legal & General kindly donated £40,000 to support the testing and development of our Virtual Assistant. This support has helped us to fully fund an entire round of user testing, helping us to put the needs of people with arthritis at the heart of our new service.

Learning more with artificial intelligence

The Virtual Assistant has been built using artificial intelligence. The cognitive understanding of IBM Watson means the assistant can adapt to questions with instant, qualified recommendations; answers which, until now, could have taken hours to find online or would have to wait until a patient’s next appointment with their doctor.

The more the Virtual Assistant is used, the more it learns. It is currently in its first phase and so is still learning, but the more questions it is asked, the faster it will develop. Not only that, but it will also gather data and understanding, such as how questioning changes depending on a person’s age, location or even the weather type.

This means that in the short-term the Virtual Assistant can provide the support and information a person needs. Over the long-term, as it learns more, it has the potential to gather important insights about people with arthritis, helping us shape our information offering and research to make lasting change to people’s lives.

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