How Voice Activation Will Transform Healthcare and Streamline Its Processes

The industry and brands involved need to be ready to adapt

“Alexa, play two o’clock nightmares.”

Out of context, this seems a bit off. But when you learn that “two o’clock nightmares” is the name of a soothing playlist assembled by a man paralyzed by a spinal injury and plagued by chronic anxiety that is often at its worst in the middle of the night, you realize immediately the transformative power of voice technology in improving patients’ lives. Without the ability to use fine motor skills to access clickable, tapable screen-based tools, voice can be all you have to control your environment, both physical and digital. This poignant anecdote, shared by John Loughnane, Commonwealth Care Alliance’s chief innovation officer, at the first Voice of Healthcare Summit demonstrates the immediacy of voice as a power to drive dramatic improvements in care today.

Many experts at the summit projected 2019 to be the break-out year of voice in healthcare (a relatively bullish prediction for a classically slow-moving industry). And while HIPAA compliance may still be many months away for the smart assistants that increasingly embed themselves into our lives, voice’s impact on healthcare is not waiting. It’s here and poised to become all the more impactful as the industry and the regulations surrounding it inch closer to where technology is today.

While HIPAA compliance may still be many months away for the smart assistants that increasingly embed themselves into our lives, voice’s impact on healthcare is not waiting.

The perspectives of physicians, insurers, hospitals and voice platform innovators converged at the summit on a host of exciting opportunities for how voice might advance the “quadruple aim” of healthcare: a better patient experience, a better physician experience, reduced costs and better outcomes. For brands looking to better understand the evolving intersection of voice technology and healthcare, these are some of the most urgent and inspiring developments to keep on your radar.

Voice is a boon to the movement toward aging in place

The United Kingdom’s appointment of a Minister for Loneliness raised some eyebrows and late-night snark when it was announced earlier this year, but the burden of loneliness is no joke for both individual patients and the healthcare system. Social isolation has been shown to have an equivalent effect on health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. It’s estimated to cost Medicare $6.7 billion per year. So as millions of older adults cross the threshold of retirement and increasingly seek to live out their years on their terms in their homes, there’s a real need for fostering connection.

Enter voice technology. The creators of LifePod, the only proactive capability currently configured to be HIPAA-compliant on the market today, have built custom extensions that allow caregivers and patients to receive personalized alerts and reporting. An interface as seamless as voice, enabling communication with caregivers while they’re away, will substantially reduce the isolation many older adults feel and the more acute risks inherent in aging-in-place. Brands that actively find ways to tap into and add value in this emerging care dynamic will stand to benefit themselves and patients tremendously.

Voice will save precious clinician time

While we often think about voice’s potential in healthcare in the scheme of powerful patient use cases like the one above, a chorus of voices championed the notion that voice tech may be the healthcare provider’s best friend. Companies like Nuance and Robin Healthcare are ushering in a new paradigm for medical note-taking, bringing voice into the doctor’s office to help alleviate one of the bigger pain points providers face: the time-intensive process of properly documenting their days. On average, humans can type 40 words-per-minute but can speak 150. The ability for medical professionals to dictate their notes three times faster via voice will yield tremendous system-wide benefits, getting providers to their next patient that much faster.

While mass provider adoption of voice tech is a ways away, many physicians and patients have expressed an openness to recording their encounters. Notation may just be the tip of the iceberg. The prospect of smart speaker-enabled doctor’s offices, whether using versions of consumer-facing tech or custom-engineered devices, has major implications for drug makers and other healthcare industry players who covet a position of discoverability in this critical setting.

Hospital operations are poised for a transformation

Perhaps unsurprisingly given its track record of innovation, Boston Children’s Hospital is among the most forward-thinking organizations in adopting voice technology. BCH has already run four pilots in the space: one consumer-facing skill (KidsMD), representing a first on Alexa, and three clinical use cases. These provider-facing applications of voice technology, in settings where there’s no room for error, are perhaps the most exciting specifically because of how they capitalize on the affordances of voice. Embedding an Echo Dot in the intensive care unit (thoughtfully placed where sound levels are lower) enabled complex, time-sensitive queries—such as “Who is the respiratory therapist for bed number five?”—to be short-cut by as much as five minutes. Another pilot inside the operating room neatly employed voice as a hands-free modality to run through a surgical checklist.

BCH’s soon-to-be-published physician survey results indicate that, if given context on potential use cases and utility via an interview, 100 percent of physicians were interested in trying voice in a clinical setting. That number dropped in half for doctors who were not interviewed, underscoring the value of physician education around voice technology in driving greater trial and adoption. Medical equipment and supplies companies that anticipate this trend, ensuring their products and brands are ready for a conversational future, will build a strong competitive advantage.

Perhaps the greatest paradigm shift affecting the entire health ecosystem will revolve around personalized, preventative care. HIPAA-compliant devices with scaled consumer adoption—in our smart speakers, our phones, our appliances, our cars—will create a seismic shift, from asking my assistant about the causes of a fever to understanding what might be behind my fever, no matter where I may be in my day. This “the world of me,” where assistants can be proactive, predictive and knowledgeable in ways that are unique to an individual’s health and care needs, will be here sooner than we know it, and every brand and business in healthcare needs to be ready to adapt.