New app tests whether talking to an avatar helps domestic violence victims

Jun 25, 2018

Credit Rochester Institute of Technology

Doctors ask a number of questions at the beginning of a visit, but one always stands out from the rest.

“Something along the line of is somebody hurting you physically or emotionally?”

If someone answers yes, what happens after can be tricky.

Alli O'Malley is the CEO of RESOLVE of Greater Rochester, a group that provides transitional services to domestic violence victims and survivors.

She says right now, those next steps are not very consistent, changing from practice to practice. Usually a doctor suggests a hot line, but the likelihood of someone taking the initiative to call is low.

That’s where “RITa” (pronounced like Rita) comes in. It’s an app that’s now available in some doctors’ offices, where an interactive female avatar that can ask a patient a series of screening questions, and make recommendations.

“It gives them the opportunity to interact with technology instead of with a person, which could be very, very hard, particularly in the earlier stages of disclosure.”

O’Malley says it’s hard to look a doctor or a nurse in the face and say this is happening. “There’s so much shame and humiliation involved.” She says, “So they were more inclined to give more honest answers to difficult questions to an app.”

She said part of the development process included asking, where are there appropriate places to leverage technology in sensitive spaces?

Their hopes are that after interacting with the avatar, a victim will be more willing to work with a human professional.

The app was developed through a collaboration with Rochester Institute of Technology , University of Rochester Medical Center and RESOLVE.