USC’s Virtual Care Clinic is a step in the future of technology-driven health care

Leslie Saxon stands in the virtual doctor photo tent at the Institute of Creative Technologies. (Photo/Eddie Sakaki)


USC’s Virtual Care Clinic is a step in the future of technology-driven health care

One day you may be able to share health information on your smartphone

January 17, 2017 Joanna Clay

In 2026, going to the doctor might be as easy as opening an app.

At least, that’s what cardiologist Leslie Saxon hopes.

Saxon, the founder of the USC Center for Body Computing, is moving toward that reality with her newest endeavor — the Virtual Care Clinic.

Scientists at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies recently created a virtual avatar of Saxon — who gestures, furrows her eyebrows and talks just like the doctor herself.

renderings of two virtual doctors
Dean Rohit Varma and Leslie Saxon as virtual doctor avatars (Rendering/Courtesy of Keck School of Medicine of USC)

One aspect of the clinic is the DocOn app, which is in the development stage — and needs to go through some regulatory approvals till it is available to the public — but the goal is to create avatars for experts and researchers from the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Saxon said the clinic is just one step in the advancement to a more technology-connected health care system.

“We think that technology has advanced to the point it’s going to disrupt something as complicated as health care,” Saxon said. “Most of the health care delivery in the U.S. and globally will be delivered over a digital platform, meaning not in person.”

Data for your doctor

To visualize this new future, imagine that your smartphone is picking up even more data than it is now — knowing what you ate for dinner, your exercise routine and your family medical history.

All that data could be turned over to your doctor — who could analyze it to see the transition from health to disease.

“In a way, what we’re doing with the virtual care clinic is we’re developing the operating system for health care,” she said.

Right now, the public can get a sneak peek of the technology through videos put out by the center.

Given Saxon’s expertise, the first version of the app is focused on atrial fibrillation, commonly referred to as “a-fib,” an irregular heartbeat disorder that affects about 6.1 million Americans, according to the American Heart Association.

It won’t diagnose, but it will be educational — such as providing information on recent studies, medication or treatments gathered from reputable medical research, according to the center.

It’s not intended to replace regular visits with doctors, but instead give patients additional resources to learn about their health, according to Scott Dorman, managing director of the Center for Body Computing.

It also allows doctors to have more time to focus on patients that need more serious attention, Saxon says in a video about the clinic.

Cardiovascular health

Ketetha Olengue, a medical student at the Keck School of Medicine and intern at the center, programmed the app. She’s also featured in the promotional video.

“When I found out that Dr. Saxon and body computing was an entity, I thought ‘Oh my god, this is perfect — I’d love to use my programming skills in the context of medicine,” Olengue said.

Olengue was also familiar with the subject of cardiovascular health — she was born with a congenital heart defect and living with a pacemaker.

“It’s exciting and it’s valuable because it’s just going to change the way people interact with their doctors,” she said of the Virtual Care Clinic. “With an app like this, it allows you to talk to a doctor in the comfort of your own home.”

To those who wonder if someone will feel weird approaching a non-human, the center points to recent research by USC’s Skip Rizzo on therapy with PTSD patients. His findings show people are more likely to open up with a virtual human, due to the lack of judgment.

The Virtual Care Clinic could eliminate other human factors that diminish quality of care, like stress or patient fatigue, according to the center, which hopes to eventually have the app in several languages so that USC physicians are available to people around the globe.