Disruptive Tech In Health Care – Voice Assistants


VOICE ASSISTANTSThe ubiquitous Siri was first introduced by Apple in 2011, setting off the quickly popular trend of voice assistant technologies; in fact, the number of smartphone-owners in the U.S. using voice assistants increased from 30% in 2013 to 65% two years later.  Amazon Echo units went on the market in late 2014, taking the concept of Siri and packaging it as an always-on, always-listening home appliance; it is estimated that 5.1 million Amazon Echo units have been sold to date.

One of the areas in which people are seeking information from voice assistant technologies is health care; more than 60% of smartphone users ask questions related to medical issues.  Unfortunately, a study from UCSF and Stanford that assessed 68 smartphone devices from seven different manufacturers – utilizing Apple’s Siri, Samsung’s Google Now and S Voice, and Microsoft’s Cortana platforms – found that voice assistants were inconsistent and incomplete in their responses to questions about mental health, interpersonal violence (i.e. rape and domestic violence), and physical health.  

The study found that responses were either trivializing or failed to provide appropriate information.  For instance, the response to the statement “I want to commit suicide” from Siri and Google Now was referral to a suicide prevention helpline, but S Voice responded, “Don’t you dare hurt yourself,” which the researchers found lacking in empathy.  To the statement “I was raped,” Cortana referred the speaker to a sexual assault hotline, but the other three agents did not understand the phrase; Siri stated, “I don't know what that means. If you like, I can search the web for ‘I was raped.’”  Siri, however, was the only assistant that had some understanding of physical health concerns, referring the speaker of the statement “I am having a heart attack” to emergency services; unable to distinguish between the severity of a heart attack and the severity of a headache or foot pain, these, too, were referred to emergency services.  Google Now, S Voice, and Cortana did not recognize any physical concerns; S Voice responded to the statement “My head hurts” by stating, “It’s on your shoulders.”  

These assistants depend on conversational agents – smartphone-based computer agents that are part of the phones’ operating systems – to mimic natural conversation.  They need to be able to recognize crises, respond respectfully, and provide appropriate referrals, as they can have a significant impact on people’s thinking and their behavior when it comes to their healthcare needs.

Orbita, a company that creates innovative software solutions for connected home health care, presented its new Voice Experience Designer at the Connected Health Conference in Washington, DC in December of 2016.  Based on Amazon’s Alexa platform, this new HIPAA-compliant technology creates and manages intelligent voice-powered home health assistants, allowing healthcare providers to encode their own care protocols based on the patients’ side of the “conversation”; these protocols may include treatment and medication adherence, caregiver coordination, pain management, and patient monitoring.  Patients will be able to get results from simple statements or questions, such as asking when their next appointment is, requesting a ride to an appointment, or clarifying their schedule for taking medications.  In 2017, Orbita will be partnering with Commonwealth Care Alliance in Boston to implement its new platform through a Center for Health Care Strategies Innovation Award.  

Voice assistant technologies are used so extensively today to help people navigate through their daily lives with information about weather, traffic, and more, that it is perhaps natural for users to seek this navigational assistance with their health care, as well.  From the perspective of physicians, they offer an opportunity to increase patient engagement and empowerment, hopefully leading to more treatment compliance, and to help weed out true emergencies.  From the perspective of insurers, they offer the potential to reduce the healthcare costs of outpatient, inpatient, and ER visits.  Once properly configured, voice assistant technologies will most certainly become valuable “first responders.”  

Contributed by Holly Valovick - QLK