Healthcare specialists at Stellenbosch University (SU) have launched a WhatsApp-based chatbot to help patients with diabetes effectively navigate risks associated with diabetes and Covid-19 from the comfort and safety of their homes.
The GREAT4Diabetes chatbot is a free service that sends automated messages that provide educational information to help people with diabetes avoid Covid-19 infection, and to self-manage their diabetes, the university says.
“During the pandemic, people with diabetes are not attending support groups or clinics as before and are not getting information or support with self-care.
"We have been looking for alternative ways of helping people to improve the control of their diabetes and stay safe at the same time. The chatbot is intended to do this job,” says SU Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) Family Medicine and Primary Care division researcher Dr Darcelle Schouw.
Schouw is one of the lead developers on the GREAT4Diabetes project, which is a collaborative project between the FMHS, the Western Cape Department of Health Metro Health Services and digital health design company Aviro.
“This is a solution for a low-resource setting. We know cellphone coverage is good in poorer communities and that people can generally afford to pay for small amounts of data. These messages are sent in small audio files using minimal amounts of data. It is a feasible solution to providing support for the self-management of diabetes,” she explains.
There are 16 evidence-based audio messages offering Type-2 diabetes patients guidance on avoiding Covid-19 infection, healthy eating habits, controlling blood sugar levels, and more. All messages are between three to four minutes long, and are available in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa.
The service is activated by sending the message ‘Hi’ to a designated WhatsApp number, which will then guide participants through the registration process. They will then automatically receive an audio message every day for 16 days.
If the project is successful, Schouw foresees that this kind of WhatsApp chatbot could be expanded for use in helping to manage other chronic diseases, not just in the Western Cape, but across the rest of South Africa.