Virtual health coaches assisting participants in wellness programs via the Internet is not a new concept. There’s definitely a convenience factor and comfort-level to interacting with an online avatar stand-in for a real trainer or coach. While virtual assistant-driven health guidance and monitoring has been successful for many people, programs targeting specific cultures and age groups are quite new. A recent article on MedicalNewsToday.com reports an online study just published focusing on inactive, older Latino adults.
The study was conducted at the Stanford University School of Medicine and is one of the first “e-health” research projects aimed at non-English speaking older adults. Designed for users with a low rate of language and computer literacy, the interactive program was successful in increasing physical activity and weight loss over a four-month period. The “digital adviser,” Carmen, was altered to adapt to local Latino culture and offer guidance in Spanish or English.
Participants were randomly put in the four-month walking program or a control group. Using a pedometer, the intervention group tracked daily steps. Each week, Carmen evaluated their performance and provided individualized feedback and helped participants set new goals, such as increasing walking distance and times. Sessions with Carmen were accessible through computers at a senior center. In addition to the walking goals of the subjects, they were counseled on health risks of inactivity and positive benefits of lifestyle changes.
After the four-month study, researchers found participants increased their walking time by an average of 253 minutes each week – eight times those in the control group. Abby King, Ph.D., professor of health research and policy and lead author of the study said, “While we hoped that the culturally-tailored, individualized program would appeal to older Latino adults, we were surprised and gratified to see how well the group of participants randomized to receive the Carmen-based counseling actually did.”
The study’s researchers hope that more large-scale testing of virtual adviser programs will be adapted to communities and ethnicity of other “targeted groups.”