Conversational Agents for Body Weight Management: Systematic Review

Background: Obesity is a public health issue worldwide. Conversational agents (CAs), also frequently called chatbots, are computer programs that simulate dialogue between people. Owing to better accessibility, cost-effectiveness, personalization, and compassionate patient-centered treatments, CAs are expected to have the potential to provide sustainable lifestyle counseling for weight management. Objective: This systematic review aimed to critically summarize and evaluate clinical studies on the effectiveness and feasibility of CAs with unconstrained natural language input for weight management. Methods: PubMed, Embase, the Cochrane Library (CENTRAL), PsycINFO, and ACM Digital Library were searched up to December 2022. Studies were included if CAs were used for weight management and had a capability for unconstrained natural language input. No restrictions were imposed on study design, language, or publication type. The quality of the included studies was assessed using the Cochrane risk-of-bias assessment tool or the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme checklist. The extracted data from the included studies were tabulated and narratively summarized as substantial heterogeneity was expected. Results: In total, 8 studies met the eligibility criteria: 3 (38%) randomized controlled trials and 5 (62%) uncontrolled before-and-after studies. The CAs in the included studies were aimed at behavior changes through education, advice on food choices, or counseling via psychological approaches. Of the included studies, only 38% (3/8) reported a substantial weight loss outcome (1.3-2.4 kg decrease at 12-15 weeks of CA use). The overall quality of the included studies was judged as low. Conclusions: The findings of this systematic review suggest that CAs with unconstrained natural language input can be used as a feasible interpersonal weight management intervention by promoting engagement in psychiatric intervention-based conversations simulating treatments by health care professionals, but currently there is a paucity of evidence. Well-designed rigorous randomized controlled trials with larger sample sizes, longer treatment duration, and follow-up focusing on CAs’ acceptability, efficacy, and safety are warranted.

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