Could health apps and chatbots eventually replace your traditional doctor?
“Let’s talk about how you’ve been feeling over the past 30 days,” says Joy. “This will help me get a sense for your current state.”
Joy probes a bit deeper, asking a series of questions: Do I feel hopeless? Do I feel restless? When I respond that I’m a bit stressed, Joy offers me several de-stressing techniques.
Joy might appear to be my counsellor or my life coach, but the conversation I’m having is actually with a chatbot that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to track emotions and provide mental health support – all through Facebook Messenger.
Welcome to healthcare in the digital age, where smartphone owners have access to their very own doctors and therapists at the touch of a button.
Joy was founded by Danny Freed after one of his best friends committed suicide.
“This planted the seed for me that there must be a way technology can help anyone who is struggling with their mental health,” he says.
“I had this realisation that we are tracking all sorts of data and metrics when it comes to our physical health, but next to nothing for our mental health.”
He says Joy encourages people to open up about their mental health and feelings, and in return hands out relevant research-backed tips, techniques and exercises.
But how do we know if it works? Mr Freed is certainly careful not to make too many grand claims for the app.
“Joy is not a clinical or diagnosis tool,” he says. “You can think of Joy more as a friend or a coach.”
Perhaps aware that credibility may be an issue, Mr Freed has recently recruited a PhD student specialising in counselling psychology who is “an expert in mood disorders with extensive clinical training in providing evidence-based therapy with adolescents and young adults”.
Since Facebook opened up its Messenger platform to developers in 2016, more than 100,000 bots have been built on the platform, many focused on health and mental wellbeing.
Woebot, for example, helps users track their moods and potentially spot and fend off the early stages of depression.
Created by Alison Darcy, a clinical psychologist at Stanford University, Woebot employs cognitive behavioural techniques.
As it learns more about you, it can see patterns emerging and suggest ways to alleviate your bad moods or negative thinking.
While Joy is free, Woebot costs $39 (£30) a month after 14 free sessions. Given that counselling or psychotherapy sessions with a human can typically cost £30-£200 an hour, it is easy to see the appeal of such digital helpers.