Hospitals, Patient Engagement

USC: Virtual clinic, holograms are ‘next frontier of digital health’

Wearable and injectable technology, as well as clinical decision support, bring scientific rigor to the project.

Five months ago, the last time we checked in with Dr. Leslie Saxon, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Body Computing, she was testing the idea of “virtual doctors” with a digital clone of herself. That project, alone with one employing video holograms, is now ready for launch.

In a new interview, Saxon called virtual humans, virtual/augmented reality and artificial intelligence part of the “next frontier of digital health.” The USC cardiologist is showing off these technologies Friday in Los Angeles during the Center for Body Computing’s ninth annual conference.

The centerpiece is what Saxon has named the “virtual care clinic.” It’s like telemedicine, except patients can dial up not live humans who happen to be on call, but virtual representations of physicians, including their own doctors. “It could be someone you pick,” Saxon explained, or it could be an avatar. “That is part of the tool kit.”

The virtual doctors are backed by clinical decision support. Some may deride the loss of the human element of medicine, but as a recent Institute of Medicine report illustrated, error in diagnosis is rampant, and physicians inherently bring some bias to their decision-making. “If you’re talking to a surgeon,” Saxon said, “you may be more likely to be recommended for surgery.

Instead, the virtual docs are programmed to discuss the “mortality advantage” of various courses of action, as this video demonstrates. “You’ve upped everybody’s game,” Saxon said.


Another video from USC shows the avatar option rather than a digital clone of a real person.

Healthcare providers can choose what conditions and treatments will be in the “formulary” of their digital clinics, Saxon said.

In each case, wearable and injectable technology can be part of the equation. The Center for Body Computing is partnering with companies such as “smart” pill-maker Proteus Digital Health, smartphone ECG creator AliveCor and vision care company VSP Global, which is putting monitoring devices in eyeglasses as part of its Project Genesis.

Those technologies are enabling another strategy the Center for Body Computing is trying, namely virtual care by hologram. In this video, Saxon appeared as a hologram for a mock patient having a cardiac scare while visiting Dubai.

Saxon said the virtual clinic is based at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, located in the coastal area of West Los Angeles known as Silicon Beach, where she has been spending much of her time of late. It’s miles away from the Keck Medicine of USC campus near downtown L.A.

“I want to make it very clear that this a technology play. We need to be at Silicon Beach,” Saxon said.

Videos: University of Southern California Center for Body Computing