PAHO launches “Pahola,” a digital health worker who can help risky drinkers decrease their alcohol consumption

Pahola, digital worker

Reliant on artificial intelligence, Pahola can also provide information on alcohol’s impact on health and on treatment resources in the Americas. 

Washington, D.C., November 19, 2021 (PAHO) – The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) today launched Pahola, the world’s first digital health worker to specialize in alcohol and health, in an effort to help countries in the region reduce increasing rates of harmful drinking. 

“Alcohol is the leading risk factor for premature mortality and disability among people aged between 15 and 49 years, so any and every tool that can help people to reduce their risk and lead a healthier life is welcome,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), said in a video message at the webinar launch of Pahola. “New technologies, including artificial intelligence, are powerful tools for expanding access to information and care, and we hope Pahola will be very successful in the Americas and around the world.”

Designed to be empathetic and free of judgement, Pahola can provide general information about the risks of drinking and communicate interactively and confidentially with people. She can help assess users’ alcohol-related risks using a series of questions. If people then decide to cut down on drinking, Pahola can help them create a plan that includes identifying triggers and figuring out how to cope with them. Available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, she can also refer people to alcohol treatment services. 

“PAHO’s goal with Pahola is to help people better understand the harms caused by alcohol consumption, increase access to reliable information, facilitate self-assessment of alcohol-related risks and take concrete steps to decrease alcohol use,” PAHO Assistant Director Dr. Jarbas Barbosa said. He added that Pahola is not intended to replace direct contact with health professionals but aims to encourage people to seek help.

Alcohol consumption takes a heavy toll in the Americas, leading to about 379,000 deaths annually from related diseases, injuries, intoxication, and poisoning. Regular alcohol consumption also increases the risk for liver cirrhosis and some major forms of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

Between 8% and 10% of the over-18 population in the Americas has an alcohol use disorder (AUD), defined as harmful use of alcohol or alcohol dependence. But about 80% of people who need treatment for AUD do not get it because services are poorly developed or unavailable. During the COVID-19 pandemic, AUD services have been further disrupted, while alcohol consumption increased in several countries, aided by online sales and home deliveries.

Dr. Anselm Hennis, Director of Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health at PAHO emphasized Pahola’s capacity to meet health needs in the Americas. “Pahola can simultaneously talk with millions of people who wish to assess the health risks of their drinking. She can significantly increase the delivery of alcohol education in settings where we simply don’t have enough health professionals to provide free or low-cost information and support. Many people can reduce their drinking with simple yet effective advice.”

Pahola complements other PAHO efforts to reduce risky drinking in the region. These include helping countries strengthen public policies such as effective taxation of alcohol, comprehensive restrictions on alcohol sales and marketing, and improving treatment interventions.

This week, PAHO also launched the “Live Better, Drink Less” public education campaign to raise awareness about the harmful effects of alcohol in the Americas.

Pahola was created in collaboration with autonomous animation company Soul Machines and PAHO's creative partner, Rooftop. The second digital person designed to combat preventable health issues, Pahola follows Florence, who was launched in July 2020 by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) quit tobacco initiative.