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Virtual Therapy


Virtual Therapy

Stanford University based start-up Woebot Inc. delivers a brand new approach in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

When we talk about medical innovation it is also necessary to take a deep look into new developments surrounding mental health. The links between mental and physical illnesses haven’t been a secret anymore for a while now. And still society is creating a severe difference between physical and mental care, which results in stigmatizing and potentially in people refusing therapy.

But – mental illnesses, like depression, are the national diseases of the Western World. They are also the second most frequent cause of incapacity to work. In Germany for example an average employee is sick 21 days a year. Every fourth person in modern society suffers the devastating experience of mental illness at least once in their life. In the last decade, the rising of these diseases was so enormous, that even our country is struggling to handle this overwhelming number of patients – not to mention the extremely high costs associated with the treatment of mental disorders.

Regarding this, the new rising approach of virtual, arbitrarily scalable forms of therapy become particularly attractive. Another plus is the obvious urge for health insurances trying to solve the problems of scarce resources in regard of mechanization.

We recently learned about an already functioning version of these kinds of therapies when we met the the founders of the German based start-up “Selfapy”, who developed an online solution for the treatment of mental illnesses. The core of the Selfapy solution is a variety of online courses, in which the patient can educate himself about his conditions and possible treatments. The courses are well constructed and advices are certainly professional.

The reservations against the use of Virtual Therapy that have been coming from the affected medical professions are severe. But this restrictive attitude is more and more crumbling – for the following reasons:

  • Compared to the average 50 minutes a patient spends with their therapist in one week, a computer companion is available 24/7. In addition to a face-to-face intervention, the benefit of Virtual Therapy is certain.
  • Sometimes virtual therapy can also serve as a gateway, giving people a solid first experience and helping them to realize when they need a more intensive and personal way of medical intervention.
  • Then there are the cases when therapy is not possible for circumstantial reasons, it is being avoided or sufficient therapeutic resources are missing in the specific region. Then, Virtual Therapy is an accessible option for patients who have no care available for their struggles with mental disorder.

A brand new and also very interesting approach to Virtual Therapy is the US-based chatbot-service Woebot.

I’m ready to listen, 24/7, no couches, no meds, no childhood stuff. Just strategies to improve your mood. And an occasional dorky joke.“

Chatbots are text-based dialogue systems between a person and a computer. With the increase of computer performance, chatbot systems are  fast-paced and becoming more and more comprehensive. With the use of Artificial Intelligence, chatbots can now offer sophisticated dialogues to the user. Sapient systems like that are already used in customer services as virtual personal assistants. Most people in the Western world have already communicated with chatbots, usually without exposing the other side as a machine.

Although, we might agree that there is quite a line between customer service and consulting a patient – with developments like Woebot, this line is exceeded. Created by a team of Stanford psychologists and AI experts, Woebot uses brief daily chat conversations, mood tracking, curated videos, and wordplays to help people manage their mental conditions.

Woebot “learned” to perform Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT teaches patients to recast their negative thoughts into a more objective or positive light. Patients are encouraged to identify their psychological traps as well as their causes for stress, anxiety or depression.

I’ll help you recognize patterns because … (no offense) humans aren’t that great at that,“ Woebot counsels us, adding a winkie emoji to the end of the sentence. „I’ll teach you how to crush self-defeating thinking styles.“

A good CBT therapy facilitates this process as a companion, but the real work has to be done by the patient – which is exactly the way Woebot works. It has been programmed to be approachable, playful and charming. At times you might even forget Woebot is a robot. Participants in the Stanford study described Woebot as „a friend“ and a „fun little dude.“
It asks questions about your mood and energy level or cheerfully points to a YouTube video on the power of positive self-talk.

And when Woebot senses someone is in serious trouble, it suggests they seek help in the real world in providing text and hotline resources just like a human friend would too.

Considering these new approaches and developments as eminent progress in healthcare innovation, we will include the topic in our Innovation Congress at the XPOMET© Convention in March next year. Dr. Jó Ágila Bitsch will present and discuss the development of his project „Psychologist in a Pocket“, giving insights and future possibilities.

Text by Ulrich Pieper & Josefine Hofmann
Pictures by Woebot Labs Inc.


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