How Voice-Activated Assistants Are Redefining Traditional Health Care

Early adopters in the healthcare community are seeing signs that voice-activated assistants are causing a major shift in patient engagement.

For the last few decades, it’s been common practice for nurses to hand patients a series of leaflets, helping to explaining how to manage patient care once at home. It’s a long process for overworked nurses and discharge staff, who end up repeating the instructions, day in and day out. Patients, too, are often overwhelmed by the information overload on post-hospital care.

Yet in the Dermatology Center at the Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic, patients have a different discharge experience. When gearing up to leave, surgery patients meet a cylinder-shaped, voice-controlled smart speaker— Amazon Echo —that connects them to Alexa, an AI-powered voice that answers how to tend to their skincare wounds. After explaining how to manage their health outside of the clinic, Alexa answers follow-up questions, such as “What if I see swelling?” or “Can I take a shower?”

For Bill Rogers, CEO and co-founder of Orbita, a Boston-based company that helps healthcare organizations create interactive voice experiences, voice-activated assistants are a great way for healthcare providers to offer consistent educational content throughout the discharge process.

“Intelligent voice assistants create a better discharge experience for patients as well as nurses and discharge staff,” Rogers said. “Patients feel free to repeatedly ask random questions and nurses don’t need to repeat the same instructions, patient after patient.”

This isn’t Mayo Clinic’s sole experiment with artificial intelligence. The nonprofit medical practice and research center also offers voice-activated self-care instructions through the Mayo Clinic app for everyday healthcare mishaps—for example, how to treat a cut or information on spider bites.

Several healthcare companies, such as WebMDBoston Children’s Hospital, and Acorda Therapeutics, have also developed applications allowing patients to seek voice-activated health information from Alexa for their home or doctor’s office.

“Voice is the next wave,” Rogers confidently explained. “You will see many more healthcare organizations plug in voice assistants everywhere they interact or engage with patients.”

“Voice is the next wave. You will see many more healthcare organizations plug in voice assistants everywhere they interact or engage with patients.”
—Bill Rogers, CEO and co-founder, Orbita

An Integrated Experience

As intelligent voice systems become more sophisticated, they are expanding into medical services that in the past required high levels of patient interaction and coaching—for instance, clinical trials.

“Voice assistants are perfect [for clinical trials] because they can generate a sense of companionship throughout the patient journey and deliver information to participants on their condition,” Rogers said. “They can also alert healthcare providers if there is an adverse reaction.”

Orbita has partnered with clinical trial services company ERT to let patients complete interactive surveys, verify home-care tasks, and verbally report health concerns. Using these intelligent features, clinical trial investigators and coordinators can use built-in data analytics to track user engagement and respond to user input.

According to ERT senior product manager Karin Beckstorm, this voice-activated technology is already proving valuable across a range of patient engagements. Upon working on ERT’s proof-of-concept project, project leaders found three areas where voice could engage, assist, and collect data—gathering answers to questionnaires, providing instructions to collect vital statistics, such as blood pressure, and providing answers to frequently asked questions.

Throughout these interactions and data collection, Beckstorm found that the patient remained engaged. “Interactive conversations with a device make the experience personal,” she said. “We found that people connect to voice agents as though they were a person.”

Researchers at ERT also noticed that voice-activated services worked well for patients with physical limitations. “Instead of having to manually enter or write down answers, which may prove difficult for some,” Beckstorm explained, “they simply need to talk and the interface enters the data.”

As voice assistants create a new user interface for clinical trials, Rogers expects them to become integrated with many of the over 250,000 mobile health apps in the market today.

“Instead of navigating their way through apps, people could simply open them, click the microphone and start a conversation,” he explained. Perhaps more miraculously, these tools could proactively reach out to patients when they forget to inform the system that they’ve taken their pills.

An assistant, for example, might ask, “Did you take your morning medicine?” and record it for the patient once they confirm. If entry for the previous day is missing, it might ask, “Did you take your medicine yesterday?”—record their reply—and encourage the patient to adhere to their medication schedule.

“Interactive conversations with a device make the experience personal. We found that people connect to voice agents as though they were a person.”
—Karin Beckstorm, Senior Product Manager, ERT

Patience In Patient Innovation

As hospitals continue to experiment with voice assistants, organizations like Mayo Clinic are realizing that while text may look intuitive on their website, it might not sound logical when spoken out loud. As a result, Mayo has needed to rewrite a large portion of its educational content.

“[Instructions] have to be conversational,” Sandhya Pruthi, associate medical director at Mayo Clinic Global Business Solutions, said. “You can’t tell the smart speaker to simply read information. You have to structure it in a way that the voice assistant works just like I talk to my patient today.”

As healthcare professionals learn to create conversational content and artificial intelligence technology becomes more robust, Rogers expects to see more healthcare electronics—such as connected insulin pumps and wearable monitors and scanners—to incorporate a voice interface.

And while the verdict is still out on whether or not voice-activated instructions will replace online or in-person information in healthcare organizations, many in the healthcare community see signs that a major shift in patient engagement is already underway.

For Rogers, early signs from those experimenting with voice tell us where the medical field is heading. “AI-powered voice assistants becoming routine in health care is a matter of when, not if.”