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Chatbot for beating sadness developed in Hamburg

Doctorprime's messenger service for children with depression

When caring mothers ask their children: “How did things go at school today?”, this usually meets with little enthusiasm. Yet, when the same question pops up on a smartphone screen, the response can have a positive effect, at least where a MySoul patient is concerned. MySoul is a messenger chatbot aimed at young people and children suffering from depression. A “chatting robot” like this is an online dialogue system that operates in real time, facilitating conversation in normal language. It aims to provide language-based guidance to its users. Some 1,500 young people are diagnosed with depression at the University Medical Center Hamburg Eppendorf (UKE) every year. But as a rule, lack of capacity means that patients may have to wait several months for therapy.

Automatic questions to bridge delay

“This is where MySoul comes in. Our messenger service bridges the delay with a series of questions, exercises and videos that convey approaches in thinking on how acute periods of sadness or depression can be overcome,” said Helge Plehn, who helped set up Doctorprime. The start-up developed MySoul along with Professor Michael Schulte-Markwort, Director of the Clinic for Psychosocial Medicine at UKE and a specialist in child psychiatry and psychotherapy. The idea originated with the doctor, who wanted to do something about the flood of applications, by assisting the young patients before therapy begins. After all, he notes that as a doctor he asks more or less the same questions every time – and this has to be capable of automation.

If things get serious, MySoul raises the alarm

The professor discussed the idea at an event with Hanno Behrens, an experienced start-up entrepreneur. He brought in Plehn, a qualified engineer and IT specialist, for the technical side, and the three set up Doctorprime. MySoul went on online in 2018. “The questions are basically quite simple. They start typically with 'How are you?’ and then become increasingly detailed. If a clearly negative trend shows up in the chat, the dialogue responds to this, leading up to a question like: ‘Don’t you want to live any longer?’”, said Plehn. Depending on the answer, the programme emits an alarm. “Then a message is sent immediately to Professor Schulte-Markwort and his team, who can intervene immediately,” he noted.

Perceived “natural” communication via messenger service

In most cases, the chat conversations are not quite as dramatic, with users in general being comfortable with MySoul, Plehn said. “The youngsters, of course, know that they are communicating with a bot, but they still link it with something personal.” This could also be down to the real-life situation of these “digital natives”, as they communicate daily with their friends using messenger services. “And some of them would rather talk to the bot about their problems than to their real-life friends.”

App from just under EUR 10

MySoul is aimed at youths from 12 years of age. Around 180 people are currently using the app. “The original idea was different,” Plehn said. “After all, we developed the messenger service with UKE’s Schulte-Markwort, and we had expected full co-operation from the hospital. Apart from the large number of users, this would have included billing via the health insurance companies. But the joint project is being delayed because of the hospital’s complex structures and rules. And we are now discussing how to proceed.”

Negotiations on a contract are going ahead with health insurers, but concluding contracts with each insurer involves plenty of work. The free market remains. The app costs EUR 189.99 including the professional care from the UKE professor. The lite version – without the expert – would cost just EUR 9.99. Plehn and Behrens are considering whether to expand their team to cope with the marketing demands. The lite version would not lead to a rapid rise in profits as the team are still financing themselves, “but rather this than leaving the app unused. Because it works. And it’s important!” 

Sources and further information:

Melissa KnausJune 17, 2019
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