“Are you a Red Sox fan?”

“Yes.”

“Awesome!”

It’s common banter, particularly among tourists and locals in Boston.  But now, this is a conversation some hospital patients in the area are having with their computerized nurse — that is, once it’s wheeled into their room.

Faced with frustratingly high hospital readmissions rates — roughly one in five Medicare patients is readmitted within 30 days — researchers at Boston University looked to the possibilities of telemedicine to coordinate care and above all tamp down readmission rates. They’ve pioneered a software program called Project RED, short for the re-engineered discharge, which is designed to emulate face-to-face conversation.

It works like this: A computer, with a designated first name, gets assigned to a patient, interacts with him and provides guidance on a range of areas, including diagnostics, medication reminders and upcoming tests and appointments.

“My name is Elizabeth, and I am here to help you with the discharge here at Northeastern Medical Center,” says this virtual nurse. “I’m here to get the information you need to help make the transition from home to hospital.”

Researchers say it’s low-hanging fruit for patient safety.

“The changing of culture in hospitals is hard, and we need new tools to help nurses deliver quality care,” said Brian Jack, MD, who presented at the 2013 Association of Health Care Journalists annual meeting in Boston last week.

Jack notes that many patients are readily embracing this approach. Patients say that the computer cares a lot about them and that they understand each other. According to Jack, twice as many patients prefer the computer over a doctor for discharge instructions.

“It’s just like a nurse only better,” he said.

Whereas a nurse might deliver paperwork upon discharge, the virtual nurse explains it all. It takes a coordinated approach to patient care and can even come home with the patient.

Project RED is part of a burgeoning field of telemedicine that aims to streamline care and cut health care costs. Researchers are hoping to expand the program to rural areas where access to care can be harder to come by.

“This is not rocket science,” said Jack. “This is just teaching people things that they should do to get them back on track”

Jack and his colleagues have begun a trial of enrolling patients with depression using virtual nurses specialized in delivering cognitive behavior therapy.

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