Our colleagues at the University of Sheffield have released a new publication in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. The results of the study support the potential of chatbots to deliver psychotherapy during Covid-19 and to play a key role in helping people with issues around their health and wellbeing.

The usability and effectiveness of conversational agents (chatbots) that deliver psychological therapies is under-researched. This study aimed to compare the system usability, acceptability, and effectiveness in older adults of two Web-based conversational agents that differ in theoretical orientation and approach.

In a randomized study, 112 older adults were allocated to one of the following two fully automated interventions: Manage Your Life Online (MYLO; ie, a chatbot that mimics a therapist using a method of levels approach) and ELIZA (a chatbot that mimics a therapist using a humanistic counseling approach). The primary outcome was problem distress and resolution, with secondary outcome measures of system usability and clinical outcome.

MYLO participants spent significantly longer interacting with the conversational agent. Posthoc tests indicated that MYLO participants had significantly lower problem distress at follow-up. There were no differences between MYLO and ELIZA in terms of problem resolution. MYLO was rated as significantly more helpful and likely to be used again. System usability of both the conversational agents was associated with helpfulness of the agents and the willingness of the participants to reuse. Adherence was high. A total of 12% (7/59) of the MYLO group did not carry out their conversation with the chatbot.

The paper concludes that controlled studies of chatbots need to be conducted in clinical populations across different age groups and discusses the potential integration of chatbots into psychological care in routine services.

Read the full study here.