Bots and what they could mean for physiotherapy

Bots will offer physiotherapy / physical therapy an innovative new way to reach clients and improve outcomes

Just over a year ago during her presentation at CPA congress Rachael described the concept of a Physiobot, imagined as an intelligent robot that conducts physiotherapy assessment and therapies. Now only 18 months later it seems that intelligent “chatbots” (now just called “bots”) are set to become a whole new genre of technological tool which could infiltrate our personal and professional lives in the same way that mobile apps have previously.

Need convincing? See VentureBeat and Wired and these highlights from 2016 tech keynotes.

Its important to understand that these new “bots” are not physical things, they are pieces of software which you “talk” to using simple text messages and they often inhabit the same messaging tools which you already use to communicate with friends and colleagues, such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp etc. These “bots” usually involve some level of artificial intelligence and seek to provide useful services such as book a flight, order a pizza, send flowers or more complex things such as navigate the legalities of the US immigration system. You can see some pretty impressive things are already being provided by existing bots and the technology is only just getting started.

This got me thinking about what the applications for these “bots” could be within the physiotherapy / physical therapy profession. Some ideas that come to mind are bots that:

  1. Provide PT advice to patients
  2. Find and book appointments with local PTs
  3. Provide clinical decision making support for PTs
  4. Facilitate communication and sharing of data between PT and patient

To explore one of these concepts I built a very simple demonstrator of a PT patient advice bot. The concept is that PT bot would provide general physiotherapy related advice akin to the advice you may offer to a friend of a friend you meet at a party and who on learning you are a PT, starts telling you about their ongoing back pain etc. In most cases the bot would seek to reassure the user, describe what they could expect to experience in a rehabilitation programme and refer them onto an appropriate healthcare service.

The demo shown below in the video is based on the application of the STarT Back Tool which is a clinical decision making aid for assisting in the management of patients with back pain. The STarT Back Tool provides the framework for the questions posed by the bot and the ultimate advice provided in this example.

Hopefully this has got you thinking about the many possibilities that this brave new world of bots presents to our profession. I don’t believe that these bots will ever replace the physiotherapist. However their easy to use conversational interface and the potential for linking the bot’s responses to a backend powered by a constantly learning artificial intelligence system, does offer an intriguing mechanism upon which many, many creative solutions will be devised. And it seems likely that physical therapy will be impacted at some point, probably sooner rather than later and we should be ready!