Conversational Bot to Promote COVID-19 Vaccination Among Patients

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by Patricia Inacio PhD |

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A conversational bot is being developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) to promote COVID-19 vaccinations among people with multiple sclerosis (MS) who are hesitant to take the vaccine.

The project is meant to provide accessible digital health information about the vaccines to more vulnerable populations who believe vaccines might worsen their condition. The initiative is titled “Building a Motivational-Interviewing Conversational Agent (MintBot) for Promoting COVID-19 Vaccination Among People with Multiple Sclerosis.

Led by Jessie Chin, PhD, an assistant professor at the university, the project recently received a $74,992 grant from the Jump Applied Research through Community Health through Engineering and Simulation — a partnership between OSF HealthCare and the Grainger College of Engineering at UIUC and its College of Medicine in Peoria.

While evidence shows that COVID-19 vaccines pose little to no risk to patients with MS and may be taken with disease-modifying therapies, certain patients can still be hesitant.

Chin’s lab studies cognition and decision-making and seeks to develop a motivational interviewing approach to promote vaccination in patients.

Motivational interviewing is a counseling technique that helps people talk about their feelings and insecurities and empowers them to change their behavior. It was originally introduced to treat substance abuse, such as addiction and drinking problems, but increasing evidence shows it has a broader use.

For this project, the researchers are developing a motivational interviewing conversational agent — called MintBot — that will be available initially at an OSF HealthCare clinic as a mobile or tablet application.

People with MS who go to the hospital and have concerns about the vaccines can share their concerns related to the vaccination with the MintBot. Then, if they want to get vaccinated, they can receive their injection right away.

“Literature has shown that the motivational interview for vaccination decision can be done in 10–15 minutes,” Chin said in a university press release.

“The best way to link patients’ behavioral intentions to actual vaccination is to make the actions available to them immediately,” she added.

The researchers want to extend the use of MintBot to other groups of people with concerns about vaccination, including those with disabilities or health conditions, or people from underserved communities.

“Our future plans are to work with the community/organizations to deliver MintBot to these specific populations, with cooperation with the local health departments,” said Chin.

Co-collaborators in the project include Suma Bhat, PhD, professor of electrical and computer engineering and Chung-Yi Chiu, PhD, professor of kinesiology and community health, both at UIUC; as well as Jared Rogers, MD, president of the OSF Heart of Mary Medical Center and Brian Laird, pharmacy operations manager at OSF Heart of Mary Medical Center.