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Singapore-developed chatbot to provide genetic counselling

National University Cancer Institute, Singapore’s chatbot will kickstart the counselling process for patients who have a higher risk of contracting hereditary breast and ovarian cancer

The National University Cancer Institute, Singapore (NCIS) has launched an artificial intelligence (AI)- powered chatbot to kickstart the counselling process for patients who have a higher risk of contracting hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC).

Developed with Singapore healthcare AI startup Bot MD, the chatbot will make it easier for such patients to learn about the condition and the role of genetic testing before their first genetic counselling session at the clinic, and to furnish information about their medical history at their convenience.

At present, patients at risk of HBOC are referred to the NCIS Cancer Genetics Clinic for genetic counselling to help them understand the pros and cons of genetic testing and discuss recommended preventive options with an expert.

Before a patient’s visit, a genetic counsellor will call the patient to collect their family’s medical history for risk assessment. The call can sometimes take up to an hour as it requires the patient to have their family’s cancer history on hand.

During the initial counselling session, the patient may also feel overwhelmed by the amount of information provided and may not be able to decide if they want to undergo genetic testing. Multiple consultations could be required, which is made more difficult by limitations due to the Covid-19 situation.

Samuel Ow, consultant at the department of haematology-oncology at NCIS, said that while genetic testing is an important consideration in the management of breast cancer patients, there remains a lack of awareness and misconceptions around genetic testing which need to be addressed through counselling.

To that end, Ow said the chatbot will enable NCIS to reach out to patients early and “provide targeted education so that they come for their consultation better informed and ready to decide on the next step”.

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During a chat session, the NCIS chatbot will collect a patient’s family medical history for risk assessment through bite-sized modules delivered through the WhatsApp messaging service.

Upon the completion of each module, the chatbot will send patients more information about HBOC, cancer genetic testing and the process of genetic counselling in the form of educational videos and infographics.

NCIS’s chatbot has been trained on subjects such as the causes of genetic inheritance of HBOC, screening and risk reducing strategies, as well as the cost of genetic testing.

Moving forward, NCIS hopes to extend its chatbot service to other Asian countries to help more patients at risk of HBOC better understand and manage their condition.

Dorothea Koh, CEO and co-founder of Bot MD, said that in building the chatbot the company “wanted to make education about HBOC less scary and more approachable for patients at risk, and to deliver it through a convenient chat platform like WhatsApp that everyone can easily access”.

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