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Sensitive virtual assistant for specific care questions

Published: 27th October 2022 Last updated: 28th October 2022

For one in three citizens, finding appropriate care and support appears to be a difficult task. Especially for people with mild intellectual disabilities, people who are low-literate or who experience mental health problems. Researchers from Communication & Cognition at Tilburg University and from the department of Primary Care Medicine for People with Intellectual Disabilities at Radboudumc started the Sensitive Virtual Assistant project.

Together with citizen scientists and three practice partners, they are investigating if and how a virtual assistant can help people in accessing care. What is innovative about the project is that the virtual assistant is "sensitive", which means that it uses artificial intelligence to recognize different types of users and adapt accordingly. So-called citizen scientists, experts by experience in the field of autism and mild intellectual disability, are closely involved in the project. They help make research methods suitable for the target group, ask the right questions and interpret findings.

Hanneke van Heijster - Postdoc researcher at Tilburg University & Radboudumc: "The role of citizen scientists is indispensable in this project. They have a lot of experience with different forms of care and the social domain due to a background of autism, for example. If you are not part of that yourself, it is difficult to oversee that care system and you may overlook what people with complex care issues are up against. In addition, citizen scientists provide feedback on interview protocols, for example, so that we ask the questions in a way that everyone can understand." 

Fewer barriers and lower costs

On the one hand, the goal of the sensitive virtual assistant is to support citizens in a vulnerable position. The assistant would make it easier for them to find their way in care and welfare. In addition, they may experience less shame when asking for help because the assistant does not judge. On the other hand, the goal of the project is also to relieve municipalities, if care seekers can refer the sensitive virtual assistant to appropriate support faster and in a more focused way. 

Christine Liebrecht, Assistant Professor: "This interdisciplinary project brings together the expertise that Tilburg and Radboudumc have to offer. In Tilburg, we specialize in the design and deployment of chatbots/virtual assistants, and we have a lot of knowledge about communication applications in healthcare. Radboudumc is experienced with citizen science, also specifically focused on the special target group in this project. This project acts as a catalyst from which science and practice benefit.'

The practice partners are foundation MEE, expert in the field of support for people with disabilities, Mobile Water, specialized in the application of artificial intelligence in digital conversations and specifically for low-literate people and Reframing Studio which uses design thinking to arrive at a product relevant to the target audience.

The collaborative project was co-financed with PPP allowance made available by Health~Holland, Top Sector Life Sciences & Health, to stimulate public-private partnerships.