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February 19, 2019

'Alexa, do I have heart disease?': Top hospitals, from Mayo to Northwell, envision a bold new future for voice assistants

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    Read Advisory Board's take: How voice assistants can be a part of your digital marketing strategy

    Hospitals increasingly are seeking to incorporate voice assistants, such as Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri, into patient care delivery, hinting at a world where voice avatars are considered part "of the medical team," Casey Ross reports for STAT News.

    The rise of voice assistants in health care

    Voice-enabled technology was until recently a "novelty" among hospitals, according to Ross. When hospitals offered the technology at all, it was limited to uses such as answering simple, at-home medical queries or allowing patients to order lunch to their hospital rooms.

    But as more startups develop HIPAA-compliant voice software, hospitals are exploring how voice assistants, developed by companies such as Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft, can be more deeply embedded into the care delivery process.

    How hospitals are incorporating voice assistants into care delivery

    For example, some hospitals are employing voice assistants in their ICUs and their recovery rooms to supplement nurse's call buttons or assist patients with post-surgery care, Ross reports.

    John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital, said the hospital is currently using voice-assisted technology to help doctors prepare for transplant procedures and to improve ICU care, and it's testing dozens of other voice technology applications.

    Starting next month, Northwell Health will put Alexa in private hospital rooms to help patients access their medical records. Vishwanath Anantraman, chief innovation architect at Northwell, said the hospital plans to develop further uses for voice assistants within the next few months, including ways to provide complex data to clinicians. "Voice tech can help improve service requests and deliver real-time analytics to the staff to ensure patient satisfaction and patient safety," Anantraman said. 

    Mayo Clinic also is piloting an Alexa program to give patients who are recovering from skin-lesion removal surgeries instructions on their post-discharge care. Mayo also conducted a study to determine whether voice-enabled technology could be used to diagnose cardiovascular disease—and the early results were promising. Mayo found the technology could help detect coronary artery disease based on a patient's tone and intensity. 

    "It opens possibilities to deliver care at a distance," Sandhya Pruthi, medical director of global business solutions at Mayo, said. "Think about people living in small towns who aren't always getting access to care and knowing when to get health care. Could this be an opportunity if someone had symptoms to say, 'It's time for this to get checked out?'"

    Implications of voice technology

    While there are numerous possible applications for voice-assisted technology in health care, experts caution it will take time and research to determine how best to use the technology.

    As Pruthi noted, "It's still very early. … You do need to do the work. There has to be evidence that this makes sense."

    Darren Dworkin, chief of information at Cedars-Sinai, said EHRs and other technologies will not be "replaced with a voice-enabled application" any time soon. "Like many technologies before this, the important part will be that we don’t get too far ahead with the hype," he said. "Voice is a wonderfully empowering technology, but we have to figure out how it finds its rightful place" (Ross, STAT News, 2/6).

    Advisory Board's take

    Anna Yakovenko, Practice Manager, Market Innovation Center, and Emily Heuser, Senior Consultant, Market Innovation Center

    While the clinical uses for voice assistant technology continue to grow, a number of hospitals and health systems are also engaging the technology as part of their strategy to attract and retain patients.

    According to a report from Juniper Research, voice-enabled smart devices will be installed in a majority, 55%, of U.S. households by 2022. This prominence is a strong reason why you may want to consider this fast-growing technology as a way to attract and retain patients. 

    We've seen organizations experiment with Alexa for consumer marketing and patient retention in several ways, including:

    1. Embedding the organization in patients' care search.

    2. More patients are using their smart speakers to ask questions such as "where is the closest primary care doctor?" or "where is the nearest urgent care?" Northwell Health System tapped into these inquires by creating an Alexa skill that tells consumers the closest urgent care or ED to their location and provides up-to-date information on the shortest wait times. Because Northwell owns the search process and helps patients make an informed choice, they increase the chance of patients choosing Northwell over a competing organization. They've also found that patients are more content when they know how long they'll have to wait—meaning that the Alexa skill may also improve the patient experience.

    3. Helping track information for disease management.
    4. Other organizations have used voice assistant technology to help high-risk patient's longer-term care management. Libertana Home Health, for instance, created an Alexa skill that allows patients to use verbal commands to report medical data (such as weight, blood pressure, or blood sugar), receive medication reminders, and call their care teams. These verbal commands can improve patient satisfaction by creating an easier care experience for patients.

    5. Allowing easy access for patients to their care team.
    6. Some organizations have used Alexa to make it easier for patients to connect with their providers. Lenovo has created a skill that allows users to reach out to their care team to request a ride to their appointment or a prescription refill—potentially improving medication adherence and reducing the rate of patient no-shows.

    For more examples of how your organization can use voice assistant technology—and a host of other new technology platforms—in innovative ways, view out research report on creating a consumer-focused digital strategy.

    Read the Report

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