November 18, 2021

Traditionally, new parents have looked to family members, loved ones and books for information about caring for their babies. These questions may soon be answered by a web-based application, a “chatbot,” parents can access with their phones.

Dr. Quynh Nguyen

The National Institutes of Health awarded researchers at the University of Maryland – including Quynh Nguyen, PhD, an epidemiology alum of the UNC Gillings School of Global Health — with a $3.7 million grant to develop the tool. Dubbed Rosie, the chatbot is designed to reduce postpartum depression and improve infant health by providing accurate information that is tailored to the individual immediately. By providing all relevant information in one place, the team hopes that new moms will spend less time on unproductive searches that intensify worry.

“The service will be able to provide information about important topics about the first year of life through an app or text interface,” said researchers Nguyen, who earned a Doctor of Public Health Degree in epidemiology from UNC Gillings in 2011, and Elizabeth Aparicio, assistant professor of behavioral and community health. Both researchers are mothers of young children and came up with the idea over coffee.

Using Rosie, which is named after the robot maid on The Jetsons, parents will be able to access this information with the ease of sending a text message. The larger aims of the app include addressing racial and socioeconomic disparities in postpartum care and reducing emergency room visits.

“It takes collaboration between someone who’s in the community. It takes somebody who can build the chatbot because it takes computer science programming, and it takes a public health perspective to try to see what outcomes could be moved,” said Nguyen. “So you really do have to have an interdisciplinary team to carry out this project and not be siloed, and interdisciplinary teams are still more rare than not.” Co-investigator, Jordan Boyd-Graber, PhD, associate professor of computer science and an expert in question answering systems, is leading design of Rosie. Xin He, PhD, associate professor of biostatistics, is guiding analyses of the randomized clinical trial.

Because it will be programmed to recognize interactions that may signal postpartum anxiety or depression, the chatbot will also be able to offer advice that responds proactively to parents’ needs.

After they finish developing the chatbot over the next year, Aparicio and Nguyen will evaluate outcomes from a group of parents who are using it, compared to a control group, over the following four years.

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