Developing a Virtual Health Coach to Support Patients based on Motivational Interviewing

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About Developing a Virtual Health Coach to Support Patients based on Motivational Interviewing


|free text=}} Background

One of the interests of Philips Research is to explore and develop innovative interventions to help people maintain a healthy lifestyle. A particular way to achieve this is by means of health coaching, a process that facilitates healthy, sustainable behaviour by challenging patients to identify their personal values and transform their goals into actions. Health coaching involves a conversation between a coach and a patient, in which the former listens actively to the latter, makes an analysis of his or her personal situation, and provides advice in the form of concrete steps to realise the healthy behaviour. As a starting point for such conversations, the coach usually has access to an individual 'profile' of the patient, which has been established in advance based on a variety of data items related to the patient's personality, cognitive/emotional states, and environmental factors.

Virtual Health Coaches

To facilitate patients in adopting a healthier lifestyle, health coaches need to invest a lot of time and effort. After all, one session is normally not sufficient to achieve a long-term behavioural change in the patient. Additionally, each health coach typically has more than one patient under supervision. Hence, to scale up the possibilities of health coaching, it is interesting to explore the potential of virtual health coaches. Such a health coach basically consists of intelligent software that simulates the capabilities of a real health coach, such as the ability to ask dedicated questions, understand the situation of the patient, establish a long-term relationship with the patient, and provide suggestions for support. Moreover, the software can have a 'physical body', represented by an avatar in a virtual environment that shows appropriate facial and bodily expressions. Such virtual agents have successfully been applied in other areas within the health care domain, such as therapy for depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. The underlying idea is that virtual agents are not restricted by time and place, and therefore are able to reach a larger target audience at limited costs.

Aim of this Project

The main goal of this project is to develop a prototype of a virtual health coach that has the ability to support patients in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, based on motivational interviewing. Motivational interviewing is a method of coaching that emphasizes individual responsibility while avoiding the labeling of patients. It is based on concepts such as showing empathy, creating awareness of the patient's negative behaviour, and avoiding argument. The idea of the project is to develop a virtual health coach that applies these strategies during a conversation with a human patient. Such a system would typically consist of a number of components, including a graphically embodied agent (i.e., an avatar) in a virtual environment, a simple question-answering system to realize a dialogue between health coach and patient, and a module to analyse the responses of the human patient (assuming that the patient will have the ability to respond in free speech, such a module could for instance make use of sentiment analysis techniques). The project can build upon some earlier research in this area by Philips and the VU. The final prototype is expected to be evaluated based on a pilot study involving possible end users.

Organisational Issues

- The Master project is expected to last about 6 months.

- As part of the project, an intership at Philips Research may be included.

- For more information, please contact Tibor Bosse ( or Aart van Halteren (