Robots Replace TherapistsWe’ve probably all seen the latest statistics: in the U.S. alone, approximately 25% of American experience a diagnosable mental health disorder every year, and yet, few people receive treatment. Worldwide, most people don’t receive any diagnosis or care for mental, behavioral or substance abuse problems. Our current healthcare systems simply aren’t adequately caring for those in need. Projecting into the future, how will we afford and improve care for billions of people suffering from behavioral problems?
This question is far from new. The latest set of answers started in the mid-70’s with early forms of managed care models. In effect, the current iteration of Health Care Reform began in those years, not only in the US, but in many other countries with experiments designed to get more timely, more effective and less costly interventions to many more people in need. As a result, outcomes have improved in many ways, but costs are spiraling and many health care system are still considered “broken” in the US, and worldwide. Now in the spring of 2014, we behavioral practitioners are just about to witness the largest change we’ve seen in our professional lives. Repercussions of the Affordable Care Act and many other supporting laws will soon begin to appear in behavioral and mental health arenas.
Technological Solutions
The above-described, profound shift in health care reimbursement policy is occurring at a time when technological capabilities are rapidly accelerating, and decreasing in costs. The behavioral and mental health words have not yet seen much change, but the next decade will bring unheralded change, whether or not professionals in practice today approve. The simple truth is that technology offers several possibilities to deliver some form of care that precedes and in many cases, can prevent the need for more direct care with a practitioner.
Evidence-based studies to look at such behavioral potentials have been funded by the US and other worldwide governments since the mid-50’s. They are now manifesting in viable products that serve as prototypes for a new class of interventions.
Robot Therapists: Telebehavioral Health Institute Blog
The Telebehavioral Health Institute blog will detail Health Care Reform, technological and reimbursement developments for you over the next months. We will also highlight other policy shifts that point to the way to unprecedented marketplace opportunities for creative and collaborative professionals who see what’s occurring around us, and want to be a part of it.  The first profound change we’ll discuss in this blog has been developing in robot therapists, as led by mental health researchers in many settings across the globe.
The setting most recently visible is the University of Southern California, (USC) Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT). It recently announced SimSensei, a robotic prototype that is a “virtual interviewer.” It was named one of the year’s top 10 most promising digital initiatives by the NetExplo Forum. The following is a paragraph from the ICT announcement, visible from its blog.

SimSensei is a virtual human interviewer that can be used to identify signals of depression and other mental health issues. In recognizing ICT’s innovation, NetExplo’s organizers noted SimSensei’s potential as “a state-of-the-art tool that health care providers can use for screening and monitoring patients.”

SimSensei leverages ICT’s advances in developing interactive virtual humans — computer-generated characters that use language, have appropriate gestures, show emotion, and react to verbal and nonverbal stimuli. It also incorporates ICT’s MultiSense technology, which provides real-time tracking and analysis of nonverbal behaviors, including facial expressions, eye gaze, body posture and voice intonation.

From these signals, SimSensei can engage a user in conversation, follow up with appropriate questions based on an individual’s answers and body language, and use this data to infer signs of emotional distress. SimSensei is not designed for therapy or medical diagnosis, but it is intended as a support tool for clinicians and health care providers.

Where will these types of robot therapist developments lead? Do therapists need to feel threatened? Your comments are invited below. For the original article reporting this robot therapist technology, see this webpage.