AI chatbot aims to fight social isolation in older people

AI in pharma and healthcare

Specialist investor Startup Health has backed an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot that aims to fight social isolation in older people. 

Developed by digital health software developer Alejandro (Alex) Harb, the chatbot called Lena after the Texas Medical Center identified older people experiencing isolation and fragmented care as an unmet need. 

The medical centre asked Harb to launch his own company, with institutional backing and support, and he came up with a solution after talking to more than 500 patients about the challenge of “healing alone”. 

Harb’s solution is Lena, a text-based “companion” using AI to connect with an older person while they are at home. 

The chatbot checks in like a “friendly neighbour” according to Startup Health, but can also instantly call in a professional care team. 

It starts by contracting with clinics or hospitals directly and building on existing patient-provider relationships – to prevent patients thinking the chatbot is a scam or an empty internet promotion scheme. 

The text messages are important because according to Harb older people do not often want to download an app. 

Harb told Startup Health’s blog: “(Older people) don’t want to memorise a new password. They’re already using text messaging to connect with family and friends. It works across ages and socio-economic status.” 

Lena uses natural language processing to interact with patients, asking questions such as pain levels and how medications are being taken. 

Based around Houston, Texas, Lena has already connected with around 1,200 older people through a partnership with Greater Houston YMCA. 

This achieved 60% engagement and increased attendance at health and fitness classes by 30%.

Another partnership with Houston Methodist achieved a nearly 80% opt-in rate and 90% weekly engagement rates.

StartUp Health has invested an undisclosed sum in the project as part of its Longevity Health Moonshot, which aims to increase the average life span while also improving quality of life. 

There are plans to expand the service across the city and beyond, according to Harb.