Why voice assistants are gaining traction in healthcare
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Why voice assistants are gaining traction in healthcare

Voice-enabled personal assistants seem to be headed for ubiquity in the consumer world. Market research firm Gartner predicts consumer demand for voice devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home will generate $3.5 billion by 2021.

But they are not confined to living rooms, telling you the day’s weather or reading out news briefings. Intelligent voice assistants are slowly but steadily being adopted in healthcare.

Several hospitals, such as Boston Children’s Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, are experimenting with voice assistants and conversational artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to provide relevant information and answer queries of patients and medical staff. Others, like Northwell Health, have turned to voice technology to help patients identify wait times at emergency rooms and urgent care centers based on their location.

AI-powered voice interfaces also seem to be catching on for at-home care as well. Take Staywell, a health engagement company majority-owned by Healthcare Services & Solutions, which itself is a wholly owned subsidiary of Merck. It has developed a voice and chat platform with AI capabilities to provide real-time support and information to manage weight and stress.

Tipping point for voice systems

Bill Rogers, who is the CEO of Orbita, a Boston-based startup that leverages voice assistant and AI technologies to help healthcare companies create interactive voice experiences, is not surprised. To him, voice is the next logical step in the evolution of user experience.

“I remember the time when everyone was rushing to set up websites and then mobile apps. It’s now time for voice,” he said, pointing out that voice is a natural way for us to interact with each other. “It reduces friction and increases engagement,” he added.

But will patients be as comfortable talking to a hardware device as a human practitioner? Early experiments at Worrell, a healthcare design firm, and Front Porch Center for Innovation and Well-being, a non-profit that runs retirement and adult living communities, seem to suggest so.

Worrell tested the feasibility of using voice assistants to help manage diabetes symptoms and gather patient insights. It found that participants were willing to share their personal health stories with smart speakers like Amazon Echo, and these devices could influence positive behaviors.

Meanwhile, Front Porch conducted a pilot study among seniors which found they felt Alexa made their lives easier. All those surveyed said they would recommend it to a friend.

These AI-powered voice technologies are proving to be incredibly versatile in terms of potential applications that range from educating patients to ensuring compliance and adherence to medication routine and providing long term care at home.

As voice technology enables healthcare organizations to disseminate and collect information from patients and provide intuitive conversational experiences, Rogers said, “It takes some pressure off overworked doctors and nurses, while tracking and analyzing patient data to provide better care.”

New health devices

The majority of intelligent voice assistant platforms today are built around smart speakers, such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home. But that might change soon, as several specialized devices focused on the health market are slated to be released this year.

One example is ElliQ, an elder care assistant robot from Samsung NEXT portfolio company Intuition Robotics. Powered by AI cognitive technology, it encourages an active and engaged lifestyle. Aimed at older adults aging in place, it can recognizing their activity level and suggest activities, while also making it easier to connect with loved ones.

Pillo is an example of another such device. It is a robot that combines machine learning, facial recognition, video conferencing, and automation to work as a personal health assistant. It can dispense vitamins and medication, answer health and wellness questions in a conversational manner, securely sync with a smartphone and wearables, and allow users to video conference with health care professionals.

“It is much more than a smart speaker. It is HIPAA compliant and it recognizes the user; acknowledges them and delivers care plans,” said Rogers, whose company created the voice interface for the platform.

Orbita is now working with toSense’s remote monitoring necklace to track vitals and cardiac fluids as a way to help physicians monitor patients remotely. Many more seem to be on their way.

“Be prepared for several more devices like these to hit the market soon,” Rogers predicted.

The AI edge

Most of the voice platforms in healthcare offer much more than a simple transactional conversation.

“It’s not as simple as asking a voice assistant for today’s weather and getting an update. These systems are creating a new world of conversations where dialog goes back and forth,” Rogers explained.

The only way it can happen is if an application understands the context and is intelligent enough to analyze the response and build the conversation in a certain direction.

“Our platforms ask questions to achieve a specific goals,” he elaborated with an example. If a patient is home after a hip replacement, the voice enabled device might ask the patient to rate their pain level from 1 to 9. If the patient says 8, it would check if they have been taking their pain medicine and when did they take it the last time.

This can be big deal in healthcare. “These platform don’t just dispense information but they are able to check for symptoms and either verify and assure the patient that everything looks ok or set up an alert,” Rogers explained, “Healthcare and health insurance organizations can save money and effort, if it can confirm to a recently discharge patient that their symptoms are normal and cut down unnecessary emergency visits.”

This could mean that true conversational AI technologies could change patient journeys forever.

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