‘Digital Imaginary Friend’ Helps Kids Process Their Emotions Through Chronic Illness—and a Pandemic

French for “to improve,” Bonifier was developed to do just that. Founder Ryan Scott came up with the idea for a web-based app— a virtual sidekick called Pip—two years ago to improve the pediatric-patient experience.

Scott’s goal is for Pip to help alleviate the fear, anxiety and loneliness experienced by sick children.

“1.7 million kids receive inpatient treatment (every year), and of that, fewer than a third ever receive any type of clinical mental health care,” he explains. 

Healthcare professionals and clinicians, though, aren’t to blame for this gap, according to Scott.

“There are finite resources,” he says. “There’s simply not enough trained clinicians to meet the ever-increasing demand.”

Enter Pip.

“We’re trying to create a resource that these kids can talk to anytime they need it—maybe the medication they’re on has them awake in the middle of the night and mom and dad aren’t there, their friends aren’t there and they’re left alone at 2 o’clock in the morning  … they’ve got Pip that they can talk to,” Scott says.

On the backend, Pip collects data from each young patient to hand off to help clinicians better understand and monitor how the child is doing. The app utilizes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, to help children understand their feelings and help them process their illness experience.

Scott discovered the need for the app by observing his own daughter’s pediatric inpatient experience. He found that typically, a mental health evaluation is only conducted at the outset of a patient’s diagnosis. Follow-up evaluations are only considered if the patient exhibits unhealthy coping mechanisms. Pip, Bonifier’s chatbot and “vigilant sidekick,” stands in the gap after that initial evaluation, encouraging children to express their emotions throughout their inpatient and illness process, and allowing doctors to track their pediatric patients’ mental health on an ongoing basis. 

Scott’s target customer is pediatric hospitals across the nation, but the advent of the COVID-19 crisis recently presented the founder with another opportunity. Scott has expanded access to Pip to the general public and children dealing with loneliness and anxiety during a #StayHome era. He hopes this temporary rollout encourages an influx of feedback as they can continue to iterate and improve Pip.

The general-public version of Pip is more generic than the pediatric-patient variety and is available for a limited 31-day trial. The public prototype serves as a safe space for kids to discuss their emotions, and like the clinical version, the backend results can still be monitored, though in this case by parents rather than healthcare professionals. Pip also provides young children with different coping strategies they might not be familiar with, such as deep breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation.

Pip also is designed to help children gain control over feelings and emotions that might seem overwhelming and misunderstood.

“One of the ways Pip builds a relationship with kids is by putting them in a role of a teacher or mentor,” Scott says. “Pip expresses the desire to learn about humans and emotions, and asks the child for help because as humans, they’re the expert.”

This, in turn, helps children with mindfulness and alleviates the extra weight of dealing with mental health, especially for children who are ill. 

Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Scott sees the company’s current situation as more opportunity than pivot.

Scott says there is an understandable tension between the nature of his business, a startup, and the healthcare industry, and he sees himself as being in the business of breaking down barriers.

“The healthcare industry is very risk-averse, and rightfully so,” Scott says. “But that’s kind of counter to the start-up ethos of, ‘Fail fast and fail often.’”

Public fear of privacy and data breaches also worry the app creator, but as a self-described private person, and father, Scott says he’s been zealous about building in meaningful protections.

In the long run, Scott hopes to expand Bonifier’s reach and Pip’s impact by expanding horizontally, eventually reaching the siblings of pediatric patients and even the children of chronically or terminally ill adults.

For more information, visit bonifier.life.

All photos provided by Bonifier.

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