Voice technology in healthcare speaks to the need for a convenient assistant that can help improve the quality and experience of care. As long as it’s not like the HAL 9000, we’re good to go.

Sick man in bed talking to a smart speakerIn the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a computer called the HAL 9000 joins a small team of astronauts on a space mission. HAL is so advanced it has a human personality and can engage with others in much the same manner as a real person. It can even read lips! But then HAL decides to take matters into its own … er … hands and the results are deadly.

At one point in the film, HAL attempts to reassure the team’s remaining astronaut by saying, “I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.”

Thankfully, HAL is fiction, while this is fact: Voice technology provides us with devices that can “hear” and “speak” to us, but they’re not sentient. Despite having human names — Alexa, Siri, Cortana — they aren’t capable of genuine enthusiasm, confidence or plotting deadly rampages. (At least, not that we know.)

Pop-culture references aside, voice technology is still capable of quite a lot and has become integrated into our overall culture. It’s proven useful in a variety of ways — including in the healthcare field.

Speaking of the future: Voice technology keeps growing

Digital speech recognition tools aren’t as new as one might suppose. IBM introduced its IBM Shoebox in 1961. It was the first digital speech recognition tool and could recognize a whopping total of 16 digits and words. That was quite an accomplishment for its time.

Its time has come. Today’s voice technology is software that responds to spoken commands and audibly communicates with the user. The tech employs a natural language interface so it can communicate mainly through speech. Think of the Amazon Echo, which connects to Alexa, the software that operates with artificial intelligence (AI). A person can literally talk to the device and it responds.

Makes sense. After all, in its own way, voice is the universal user interface. That’s a fancy way of saying the spoken word comes naturally to all humans and reaches across all communication channels. Add in the muscle of machine learning and natural language processing (thanks, AI!), and this interface has become a go-to for people of various ages and walks of life.

Research conducted last year noted that voice is now the number two choice for mobile search, after the mobile browser:

  1. Mobile browser
  2. Voice search
  3. Phone’s search box/window
  4. Search app
  5. Text a friend

Safe to say, the benefits of voice-assisted technology are being heard loud and clear.

Voice technology in healthcare is just what the AI ordered

Smart speakers have been helping millions of people check the news, make grocery lists and listen to music — all with a few spoken words.

Now it’s healthcare’s turn.

Mayo Clinic leads the way in voice technology

Providers and patients are two primary users of voice-assisted technology in healthcare. The Mayo Clinic was one of the first healthcare systems to introduce voice technology for:

  • Health information
  • Post-discharge instructions
  • Self-care instructions for minor mishaps such as treating a cut

Mayo Clinic and other innovative providers are also starting to use the technology in their hospital rooms to chart and track patient wellness.

Boston Children’s Hospital uses voice to check symptoms and offer flu alerts

This is another healthcare system that’s been exploring voice technology. Boston Children’s Hospital uses a voice-assisted skill that offers parents expert advice about common symptoms, treatments and suggested medicine dosages. The Boston hospital also partnered with Seattle Children’s Hospital to deliver weekly flu updates and help users find places where they can get flu shots.

Alexa develops HIPAA-compliant skills

In 2019 Amazon secured six new HIPAA-compliant skills that allow patients, caregivers and health plan members to use voice commands so Alexa can help them manage their healthcare at home. Patients can, among other healthcare-related tasks, access their health data and interact with their providers. Patients can use Alexa to:

  • Check prescription status. The smart speaker can check the status of home delivery prescriptions and let users know when medicines have been shipped and when they’ll arrive at their homes.
  • Engage with their wellness programs. Employees enrolled in a health plan can use the skill to check wellness program goals, ask for health tips and learn more about plan rewards.
  • Access their blood sugar readings. Patients who take part in Livongo’s diabetes program can use Alexa to check their latest blood sugar readings and get health tips that are personalized to them.

Providence St. Joseph Health helps patients find locations

Providence has designed an Alexa skill that lets patients find Swedish Express Care Clinics in their vicinity. They can also use the device to schedule same-day appointments at 37 of its locations on the West Coast.

Voice-assisted tech is speaking comfort into the lives of older adults

Along with helping to carry out tasks related to physical health, the devices can be a boon to mental and social health, too. A discussion at a 2019 Leading Age conference revealed that when older residents in a senior care setting used smart speakers, their depression scores dropped by an impressive 44% over six months.

Voice tech in the time of coronavirus

During the pandemic, AI voice recognition in healthcare may be even more widespread than we know. For instance, users can conveniently screen for COVID-19 symptoms by asking a device for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance about risk levels and symptoms. (Note: The devices can’t — and shouldn’t — replace professional healthcare advice.)

A word about providers and voice-assisted technology

Many providers now see the value of voice-assisted technology. They’re using the tools to:

  • Document patient data within electronic health records
  • Conveniently place orders for tests and medicines
  • Dictate the patient’s history and assessment
  • Make notes for their own purposes, which means less typing, cutting and pasting
  • Pull and organize discrete data elements out of free text to care for patients with more complex conditions

Voice technology in healthcare, you’re speaking our language!

Of course, asking for personal prescription data is far more complex than asking Cortana where asteroids come from. Developers must take a deep dive into HIPPA requirements, various legalities and who owns the data in the first place. And they’ll most likely need to keep one foot in that everchanging environment for the long haul.

Still, the legalities are being addressed and health organizations of every size, from every quarter, see the benefits of voice technology. As part of the ongoing effort to improve the care experience, clinicians and patients are having their say about voice tech — and they like what they hear in return.

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