Voice assistants are computer programs that receive audio inputs and respond with audio output in a manner perceived as listening and “answering” questions from a person. A user can ask “What is the weather going to be for today?” and the voice assistant will respond with a weather report for the user’s location for that day. Voice Assistants in Healthcare is a rapidly evolving area that is poised to dramatically change healthcare as we know it today.
The use of voice assistant technology from Amazon (Alexa), Apple (Siri), Google (Google Assistant), and Microsoft (Cortana) are becoming mainstream. According to the 2019 NPR and Edison Research report, there are over 120 million smart speakers in US homes. The Juniper Research report estimates there will be 8 billion digital voice assistants in use by 2023. Asking a voice-assisted device for information is becoming naturally integrated into daily behavior for many. Some of the most common categories of applications for these voice assistant devices include games, music, exercise, cooking, weather, home automation, and shopping.
While voice has seen enormous growth and acceptance in many business sectors, the healthcare sector has been slow to adopt voice mainly due to reliability, security, and HIPAA compliance. Health care applications and research for voice technology are still relatively new, and there are many opportunities and challenges faced by this sector before voice-assisted applications become widely adopted in health care.
Voice Assistants Technology in Healthcare
Voice assistants are a natural fit for the health care industry because of the high volume of information involved and the hands-free nature of the technology. Speaking is much faster than typing on a computer or writing notes, feels more natural, and allows for increased interactions. The largest challenge for use in health care is privacy, health care protected information, and compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability (HIPAA) compliance, without which smart speakers are a nonstarter for health care applications that involved patient information. Currently, Amazon Alexa is the only commercial smart speaker to offer HIPAA compliance.
How Can Voice Assistants Be Used for Healthcare
The most obvious users of voice assistants in health care are patients and clinicians. For patients, the annoyance of having to repeatedly complete patient history forms every time they visit a different physician is time-consuming and prone to error. Other patient-facing applications include medication reminders, chronic disease management, appointment reminders, and treatment information. All these use cases could easily benefit from virtual assistants to help improve care and reduce the workload of health care professionals.
Clinicians are burdened by electronic health record (EHR) data entry. Many complain they are hardly able to make eye contact with their patients during an appointment because they are attending to the screen and keyboarding information into the EHR. Additional data entry and form completion takes many hours after clinic ends for most physicians. In fact, the average clinician spends two hours on data entry for every one hour they spend providing actual care. Data entry and documentation, as well as the EHR itself, are often cited as drivers of increasing levels of burnout in health care.
Virtual assistants offer an important opportunity for improving patient engagement and reducing physician burnout and range from simple dictation to the coaching of individuals with chronic diseases or after surgery. We discuss a selection of available voice-assisted programs to demonstrate the range of possibilities.
Dragon Virtual Medical Assistant
The Dragon Virtual Medical Assistant is a cloud-based clinical documentation virtual assistant platform that understands sophisticated conversational dialogue. Dragon has capabilities that automate high-value clinical workflows, including the integration of voice-to-text software into EHRs, which saves time and money.
Express Scripts Amazon Alexa Skill
Members of the Express Scripts pharmacy services organization can check the status of a home delivery prescription and ask Alexa to send notifications when prescriptions have been shipped and when they arrive.
My Children’s Enhanced Recovery After Surgery (ERAS)
Parents and caregivers of children enrolled in Boston Children’s Hospital’s ERAS program can send updates to their care teams on recovery progress. Care teams can also send information on post-operative appointments and pre- and post-operative guidance. The skill is initially being used for children having cardiac surgery with plans for expansion in the near future.
My Diabetes Coach
Developed by Macadamian, My Diabetes Coach is a voice assistant that leverages a companion mobile app to collect data from connected devices. Data is gathered from sleep trackers, weight scales, blood glucose monitors, and patient-entered data (for example, daily food intake to help patients better manage their diabetes. See the My Diabetes Coach voice assistant.
American Red Cross
The American Red Cross Amazon Alexa skill allows a person to schedule a blood donation, get valuable first aid information, or receive notifications about an approaching hurricane. The Red Cross is also able to use Alexa to gather monetary donations from individuals.
Mayo Clinic First Aid
The Mayo Clinic First Aid Amazon Alexa skill provides self-care instructions for dozens of everyday mishaps and other situations–providing quick hands-free answers. Topics include:
- “How do I treat my baby’s fever?
- “Tell me about spider bites.”
- “Help for a burn.”
- “How to treat a cut”
- “Instructions for CPR”
Pillo is a countertop voice assistant that engages users and reminds them to take medications. Designed for elderly people with chronic diseases or complex care plans, the tool can store dispense and reorder up to 28 doses of medication on a preset schedule. In addition, Pillo can deliver audio- or video-based health content and facilitate video calls between patients and their caregivers, while allowing the caregivers to monitor adherence data.
Voice assistants are not limited to just these applications; there are many others. Together these applications and more in development may affect all individuals, workflows, and business operations in health care. Although voice technology is still in the early stage of development, it is poised to be a game-changing technology for the health care industry.
According to David Box, Global Managing Director, Health and Wellness at Star, “I truly believe that voice is the new frontier. With nearly 2 billion touchless user interfaces (UIs) and internet of things (IoT) endpoints in the marketplace today, it is hard to deny that voice, as an input modality, has found a foothold in our everyday lives. There are many use cases in health care where this technology can help improve the patient experience as well as improve the clinical workflow. Innovative companies are developing a wide range of products that range from triaging patients in the home to helping physicians prepare for procedures.”