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J Med Internet Res. 2016 Jan 4;18(1):e1. doi: 10.2196/jmir.5239.

Improving Access to Online Health Information With Conversational Agents: A Randomized Controlled Experiment.

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Northeastern University, College of Computer and Information Science, Boston, MA, United States.



Conventional Web-based search engines may be unusable by individuals with low health literacy for finding health-related information, thus precluding their use by this population.


We describe a conversational search engine interface designed to allow individuals with low health and computer literacy identify and learn about clinical trials on the Internet.


A randomized trial involving 89 participants compared the conversational search engine interface (n=43) to the existing conventional keyword- and facet-based search engine interface (n=46) for the National Cancer Institute Clinical Trials database. Each participant performed 2 tasks: finding a clinical trial for themselves and finding a trial that met prespecified criteria.


Results indicated that all participants were more satisfied with the conversational interface based on 7-point self-reported satisfaction ratings (task 1: mean 4.9, SD 1.8 vs mean 3.2, SD 1.8, P<.001; task 2: mean 4.8, SD 1.9 vs mean 3.2, SD 1.7, P<.001) compared to the conventional Web form-based interface. All participants also rated the trials they found as better meeting their search criteria, based on 7-point self-reported scales (task 1: mean 3.7, SD 1.6 vs mean 2.7, SD 1.8, P=.01; task 2: mean 4.8, SD 1.7 vs mean 3.4, SD 1.9, P<.01). Participants with low health literacy failed to find any trials that satisfied the prespecified criteria for task 2 using the conventional search engine interface, whereas 36% (5/14) were successful at this task using the conversational interface (P=.05).


Conversational agents can be used to improve accessibility to Web-based searches in general and clinical trials in particular, and can help decrease recruitment bias against disadvantaged populations.


Internet; Web search; computer literacy; embodied conversational agent; health literacy; information retrieval user interface; relational agent; search engine; search user interface

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