Smart speakers and voice assistants such as Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri are just now starting to find their way into our everyday lives. Early adopters are already using them to manage their homes, while driving, to find information online and even do their shopping.
However, current levels of penetration are thought to be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how the latest technology in the world of voice-powered software applications will become ubiquitous sooner rather than later. Two predictions made by media measurement and analytics company comScore are that in the USA 50% of searches will be made via voice by 2020 and 55% of US households will have a voice assistant by 2022. With those two dates only 2 and 4 years away respectively that sounds slightly optimistic. Nonetheless, the time when voice commands to tech becomes normal will certainly come relatively quickly.
However, healthcare is perhaps not the application of voice technology that springs immediately to mind. But pilot projects are already underway and it could in fact be a major application of the technology. Boston Children’s Hospital hosts the Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator who are at the forefront of developing applications of voice tech in healthcare. Pilot projects have demonstrated that physicians are more receptive to engaging with voice assistants than had been expected. The three areas set to see adoption fastest are:
Intensive care: the sterile environment of an intensive care unit means hands-free access to information can help improve both efficiency and safety. Not having to use a phone, browse through documents or walk to another room is very useful. Using voice assistants to access guidelines, protocol, medical records or other support information can save seconds, which can be critical in an intensive care situation.
Organ transplant: the transplant team at Boston Children’s has piloted a voice-powered ‘pre-operative, hands-free checklist process’. Feedback has shown satisfaction at the efficiencies this has led to and the potential to reduce human error. The project is still in an early proto-type phase but early signs are that it has the potential to have a hugely positive impact when fully developed.
Home health: Amazon’s Alexa assistant provides access to KidsMD, a resource provided by Boston Children’s. Parents can provide Alexa with empirically gathered information on symptoms of common ailments suffered by children like fevers, colds and ear infections and received guidance from the Hospital. This might be on how to care for the patient at home or if it sounds as if a visit to the doctor might be a good idea. So far, in its early stages, over 100,000 interactions with the resource have been logged.
There are, however, still limitations around the use of voice assistant technology in healthcare. Patient privacy regulations are a major barrier. Domestic voice assistant devices and software are not yet HIPAA compliant, which means confidential information is not fully protected.
Sometimes noisy clinical settings are also proving to be a challenge and in some situations the addition of visual support may be necessary. Wifi access and the stability of connections can also be a problem if voice technology is overly relied upon.
However, despite the hurdles to be overcome, the advantages it can bring mean that within a decade it is likely that voice assistant technology will have become an integral feature of healthcare.