The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Benoît Brouard, chief executive officer and co-founder of WeFight, a company based in Paris, which uses AI to support patients with cancer. Brouard discussed how AI can improve the relations between patients and healthcare practitioners, and by simplifying remote care, can lead to more efficient care delivery.
Eline Chivot: What has led you to create WeFight?
Benoît Brouard: I’m a former hospital pharmacist. During an internship at several hospitals in Paris, where I had the opportunity to work with many patients and doctors, I realized that patients had a lot of concerns about their treatments and disease.
This background helped me to really understand the context and concerns of patients, as well as the healthcare challenges we will face in the coming years. Today, more and more patients are treated outside hospitals, far away from nurses, doctors, and pharmacists, without having access to any good source of information—online forums come with limitations such as disinformation or misinformation. Yet there are institutional websites which include a lot of valuable, reliable information and data to process.
At the time, during my internship, I also created my first company to develop mobile apps, so I have experience from both the medical field and the technical field. I wrote my thesis on how new technologies can help patients with cancer and chronic diseases.
I tried to come up with solutions myself including a mobile app at first, and soon decided to focus on one of the patients’ most important problems, to ensure a solution would be truly valuable. Based on my experience in hospitals and discussions I had with patients from an association, I identified that it was the lack of information.
This is why I created Vik, a chatbot. I tested it with patients as a proof of concept at first, and a few months after its launch I met my co-founder, an engineer from a top school in Paris, Pierre Nectoux. He helped me by sharing his own vision of the product. My medical experience combined with his technical expertise led to the current version of Vik, used by thousands of patients today.
The goal of Vik was to provide patients with instant, valuable, and understandable answers to their questions, formulated by healthcare professionals. The goal is not to replace healthcare practitioners, provide recommendations to patients, or suggest changing treatments. It really is to empower patients by giving them that information.
Chivot: What does WeFight’s technological architecture look like? How do you scientifically validate recommendations?
Brouard: Vik’s technology is two-fold. The first part is the use of natural language processing (NLP), that is the ability of Vik to understand a sentence, a question. At first we tried Google’s free platform Dialogflow to create NLP tools, but it wasn’t specific enough, and we weren’t able to have access to the technology itself. To really improve Vik’s technology and customize it, we then developed our own algorithms: One for breast cancer (Vik Breast), one for asthma (Vik Asthma), etc. These are tailored to answer patients’ concerns, not questions from doctors, because they are trained on sentences made by patients.
The second part is the ability of Vik to provide an answer. To ensure high quality answers, we have a team of pharmacists and doctors at WeFight, who will create the answer. They have built a huge content database of answers, based on and according to patients’ concerns, and written in a way that patients can easily understand.
Vik’s role is to understand your question, to look for the right answer in this database, and to provide you with this answer. Today, Vik answers one question every two minutes—meaning that it is helping one patient every two minutes, every day.
Chivot: Can you walk me through how WeFight benefits healthcare providers?
Brouard: Vik is a great way to save time for doctors and nurses by tracking and treating patients remotely. Today we are working with hospitals to connect patients, Vik, and hospital systems. Vik monitors patients from a distance, interacts with them, addresses concerns, collects and sends the data directly to hospitals and healthcare teams, so that they can check a patient instantaneously. They can then decide whether he or she has to come to the hospital for a medical visit or a diagnosis, to adapt his or her treatment.
This enables healthcare systems to improve cost efficiency of treatments. One downside may be that it can isolate patients, and lead to other problems. But Vik is not here to replace human contact—rather to fill a gap or act as a bridge between caregivers and caretakers. Our view is not to have all patients chatting with a robot. Our vision is really to be there where there is nothing—a lack of information and a lack of direct contact with healthcare practitioners. And patients seem to really enjoy interacting with Vik.
Chivot: Which type of patient is most likely to use WeFight?
Brouard: From the very beginning we have tried to reach as many patients as possible. To do this, we built our technology to make it available on many different channels. Vik is not just a mobile app. You can chat with it on Messenger, on the web, on iOS, Android, and soon on WhatsApp. This way, we can interact with various people therefore with many various challenges and concerns. This also is meant to make it easy-to-use and give users a choice: Patients don’t have to download the app from the app store if they don’t want to. Instead of having to log in with a password, you can use Vik via Messenger, and discuss with it as you would with any other Messenger friend.
Another way to reach many patients was the choice to avoid the traditional interface of mobile apps by choosing the chatbot concept instead—not to be fancy, but to simplify the user’s experience, to ensure broader availability and adoption. As a patient, you don’t have to understand the interface and how it works, you can simply send a question and receive an answer. For example, the median age of our Vik Breast’s users is 53 years old, while the median age of women with breast cancer is 60 years old. This shows that it’s not just young people using our app and that we’re able to reach many patients—women, in this case.
To ensure users trust technologies like ours, it is important to ensure compliance with regulations, especially in sectors that handle sensitive information such as health data. We inform patients about what happens to their data, without drowning that information into 30 pages of terms and conditions. When a patient starts using Vik, he or she can clearly see how his or her data will be used. In France we have to comply with a regulation on health data, which requires this data to be stored on specific servers, based in France. We don’t sell the data we collect, and store it on those servers. Vik is useful to the pharmaceutical industry, for instance to identify particular pain points among patients, to increase corporate visibility, and for marketing purposes—but we do not sell any data to these firms.
Chivot: How will AI transform the healthcare sector, and the relationships between care takers, care givers, and healthcare professionals?
Brouard: There are many different areas of AI in healthcare, but in my area (chatbots, robots, and healthcare), we see our goal as acting as a bridge between healthcare providers and patients. We aim to interact with patients, collect data, provide doctors with real-world patients’ data, help healthcare professionals monitor their patients properly, and to improve time and cost efficiency. Today there’s a lack of doctors and nurses, while there are more and more patients with chronic diseases. Healthcare hospitals and their systems lack resources and cannot track patients remotely yet: They will need many more of solutions like ours.