unisa logo

Virtual health coach ‘Paola’ will help you get fit and eat well

By Annabel Mansfield

Paola, a virtual assistant provided through an app, will help people follow a Mediterranean diet and be more active. Paola, a virtual assistant provided through an app, will help people follow a Mediterranean diet and be more active.

Imagine having a personal coach available 24-7 to provide advice on how to improve your health and fitness.

Well, imagine no more. UniSA researchers are piloting an artificially intelligent virtual assistant ‘Paola’, who will help participants follow a Mediterranean diet and increase their physical activity.

Paola is a chatbot with the ability to learn and modify her responsesPaola is a chatbot with the ability to learn and modify her responses

The study aims to show how chatbot technology – Paola ­– can facilitate improved health and physical activity, while reducing risk factors for cardiovascular disease including blood pressure and body weight.

Study volunteers will be guided through a 12-week program run by virtual assistant ‘Paola’.

Lead researchers, UniSA’s Associate Professor Carol Maher and Dr Karen Murphy, say this is one of the first times that chatbot technology has been used to deliver a health coaching program.

“Chatbots are increasingly appearing in service industries, but in most cases, they can only answer a limited set of common questions and require human steps to complete the conversation,” Assoc Prof Maher says.

Paola is different as she is not just a first-level response chatbot; she has the ability to learn and modify her responses, giving the potential to deliver an entire health program, without additional support from a dietitian or exercise professional.”

Paola is built on OutThought technology, underpinned by IBM Watson Virtual Assistant which is known for its ability to accurately and easily interpret human interactions. The virtual assistant technology has been further enhanced to bring a personal and natural feel to the way Paola converses, enabling her to refer to users by name and send them friendly reminders to complete their check ins.

The research presents a significant opportunity for emerging technology to be applied in the health domain, where Australia’s health expenditure currently exceeds economic growth. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare statistics report that Australia spent $180.7 billion on health, an equivalent of more than $7400 per person.

The rise in health costs indicates a need to drive better outcomes for patients and citizens. Through technologies such as artificial intelligence, researchers can improve health outcomes while potentially reducing costs.

Industry partner, Paul van der Linden, Director of OutThought and technology provider of Paola, says it has been exciting to work with UniSA researchers to custom-make a virtual assistant.

“Our expertise in technology and deep knowledge of its benefits and limitations have allowed us to create amazing virtual assistants like Paola,” van der Linden says.

“But this is only part of what is needed; it has been the UniSA team, their passion and deep understanding of health research and the Mediterranean lifestyle, that has given Paola her unique personality.

“Together, we’ve created something great, which the whole team is hoping will successfully deliver UniSA’s Mediterranean diet and exercise program.”

A Mediterranean diet and lifestyle can improve life expectancy, health and wellbeing.

Assoc Prof Maher says these benefits come from following a particular eating pattern, as well as taking opportunities to be active throughout the day.

“Often people don’t understand the specifics of a Mediterranean diet or how to adopt it into their lifestyle,” Assoc Prof Maher says.

“To shift to a Mediterranean lifestyle pattern, people need detailed and personalised information, typically from a dietician or exercise physiologist, which is time consuming and expensive.

“We hope Paola will offer people an alternative. She presents the potential for many more people to access and take advantage of healthy diet and lifestyle information, which we hope, will successfully support them to make long term changes to improving their health.”

Would you like to take part in the pilot program?

The pilot study is seeking volunteers who meet the following criteria:

  • Men and women aged 45-75
  • Doing less than 150 mins of exercise per week, but able to do more
  • Not currently following a traditional Mediterranean diet
  • Have a smartphone capable of downloading applications AND/OR have regular access to a computer with good internet
  • Fluent in English
  • Neither pregnant nor breastfeeding.

Volunteers interested in participating should contact Courtney Davis on courtney.davis@unisa.edu.au or by phone 8302 1532.

Each volunteer will be provided with a free Garmin Vívofit® 4 wearable wrist watch to monitor their daily steps and total active minutes which they can keep after the study.