Industry Voices—Digital health care's next shift? Voice interfaces

Voice interfaces are beginning to take their place in health care, offering continuous, easier engagement for providers and patients.

Around 2.5 billion voice-capable devices are already scattered through our lives, creating the opportunity for exchanges without visual interfaces or the need to manipulate hardware. 

Hardin Memorial Health, for example, implemented voice-activated communication in its emergency department so staff without a free hand to communicate can stay in touch with their teams. Its voice-activated badges from Vocera route and receive messages, no hands required.

Voice interfaces are also already being applied to in-home care. Libertana Home Health, for example, worked with Orbita’s voice platform to make an Alexa skill that lets seniors check daily schedules, get reminders and confirm they’re taking their medications. The skill also augments emergency call buttons with voice requests that give more details so first responders can help faster and more efficiently.

As payers, providers and other health organizations increasingly implement voice interfaces, it will be essential to reduce barriers to engagement in order to drive adoption and unlock the technology’s promised value. Organizations should consider the following drivers of adoption when implementing voice for the first time.

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Human factors frame how to use voice interfaces

Humans speak nearly four times faster than they can type, so voice is more immediate. But it’s not better across the board. People process speech only about half as fast as they can read it. Text is also better than voice for fast scanning, and some health concepts require visual illustration.

That means highly functional experiences often call for screens and voice to work together, such as on a device like Amazon Fire TV. But continuous low-acuity communication is shifting the care model from intermittent appointments to quick micro-interactions, with the promise of enhancing patient engagement.

Time and literacy are human factors, too

The most recent report on adult literacy found that half of Americans read at or below a seventh-grade level. Voice can help address low literacy rates by allowing patients to verbalize requests and receive spoken replies without having to read them.

Regardless of literacy, patients disengage when getting information is time-consuming. That’s why insurance provider Sun Life made an Alexa skill to answer quick questions about copays and funds available for treatments.

The wild card: Voice biomarkers may help disease diagnosis

The power of AI is expanding voice interfaces beyond interaction and engagement. For example, it can now detect far more meaning than simply the words spoken.

Researchers are analyzing recordings of patient voices for diagnostic clues. Mayo Clinic is studying the voice biomarkers of coronary artery disease, while the DigiPsych Lab at University of Washington is discovering voice biomarker connections with 13 neuropsychiatric conditions like depression, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Voice exchanges are starting to simplify care journeys and engage patients today, which may provide early indications of disease states in the future.

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Natural interactions provide new opportunities for engagement

As emerging and intelligent technologies mature, platforms that offer the most natural interaction methods will see greater integration in health care. PK, for example, has built a web-based intelligent agent that integrates facial recognition with a natural voice interface to replace slow, conditional logic-based systems such as those currently used by Interactive Voice Response systems (IVRs).

Technology like this could be used as an accompanying intelligent agent on a mobile device or in a hospital room that analyzes conversations between doctors and patients. The interface could intelligently assist by preemptively bringing up a patient’s medical history, executing instructions for scheduling or automatically sending a prescription to the patient’s preferred pharmacy. 

While the use of voice to machine interaction in health care may still be in their infancy, these early initiatives are validating the promise of voice interfaces. Organizations that tap into real-world drivers of adoption will unlock new ways to simplify care journeys and engage patients. 

Dave Wieneke is the health care innovation director at PK. He teaches health care marketing and digital transformation at the Rutgers Business School. Tipton Loo is vice president of digital edge (AI and IoT) at PK.