HIMSS19: Mayo Clinic expands voice capabilities to provide care, potentially diagnose disease

Consumers who own smart speakers, Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, already use these devices for online searches to self-diagnose health symptoms or for minor first aid.

Now Mayo Clinic is looking to leverage its presence on voice assistants to be the go-to source for health information, exploring how voice technology could help patients adhere to postdischarge instructions or a diagnostic tool.

The Rochester, Minnesota-based health system—which first launched a first-aid voice application on Amazon Alexa devices in 2017—announced at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society's (HIMSS) annual conference and exhibition that it expanded that content to Google Assistant-enabled devices and an AI-powered voice chatbot.

“From a healthcare perspective, voice offers capabilities that we may not otherwise have,” Jay Maxwell, senior director of health information content at Mayo Clinic, told FierceHealthcare. For instance, speaking is three times faster than typing or texting, he said.

Setting up the technology

Voice technology is expected to play a large role in healthcare, especially as the baby boomer generation ages. At the HIMSS conference, an Intelligent Health pavilion showcased the latest in home health internet of things and voice technologies.

RELATED: Hospitals want to use Amazon’s voice recognition software, but real-world hurdles remain

A “smart home” demo included a kitchen with an Amazon Alexa device and Pillo, a voice-activated, hands-free medication dispenser that is HIPAA-compliant. The smart home bathroom included a hands-free IoT device that can be used by elderly patients in the case of a fall.

Mayo Clinic has been working with Orbita, a company that says it provides the only HIPAA-compliant platform for voice and chatbot applications in healthcare, to build the voice-enabled first-aid platform.

The platform incorporates 50 medical topics for consumers with low-acuity problems such as minor burns or insect bites to receive hands-free answers to first-aid questions. They also created a chatbot on their website for consumers. The use of voice technology helps Mayo meet patients where they are, Sandhya Pruthi, M.D., a general internal medicine physician and associate medical director of Mayo’s global business solutions, told FierceHealthcare.

“People will still go to print, mobile, and digital content on the website to get health information, but they will also be looking to get health information through voice,” Pruthi said. “We wanted to provide accurate, trusted, evidence-based health content to address consumers’ health concerns when they have them and when they need the information.”

Recent data shows that 32% of consumers own a smart speaker, up from 28% in January 2018, according to Adobe Analytics, and 71% of smart speaker owners say they use the device daily, with 44% using it multiple times per day. Gartner predicts that by 2020, 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen. Given that consumers are looking up their health symptoms through online searches, organizations like Mayo are putting their clinical expertise behind first-aid instructions and symptom checkers.

Other hospitals are exploring the technology as well. Boston Children’s Hospital piloted several voice applications, including to improve the efficiency of ICU care and streamline the preoperative organ transplant process.

What's next

One exciting development, Pruthi said, is the work that Mayo Clinic researchers are doing around voice analytics and the potential to use voice as a biomarker for detecting disease. “There are diagnostic clues hidden in our voice that could serve as a diagnostic aid,” Maxwell said, citing a Mayo study that found voice characteristics are associated with the presence of coronary artery disease.

By leveraging artificial intelligence, changes in voice tone or cadence could potentially be predictive of an outcome, such as high blood pressure, stroke or heart attack, Pruthi noted. This holds the potential for voice analysis to be used as a noninvasive diagnostic tool, which could be particularly beneficial for diagnosing conditions through telemedicine.

It’s an emerging area and one digital health company, Sonde Health, is developing a voice-based technology platform to monitor and diagnose mental and physical health conditions.

RELATED: Novant Health's physician search is now available through Google Assistant

Mayo has also collaborated with startup Sensely to build out a virtual nurse platform, called Molly, that offers patients self-service symptom triage. The nurse is a chatbot interface that runs symptom assessment algorithms and then recommends the appropriate healthcare services, with the aim of assisting patients at home, if possible.

The health system piloted voice technology for patient education and procedure follow-up care, specifically focusing on a small group of patients who had a dermatology procedure. There are plans to develop interactive care plans as well.

Ongoing research within the nursing department seeks to leverage voice for patient discharge instructions, and there are efforts to use voice assistants to interact with electronic health records to improve provider-patient interaction and increase provider efficiency, Mayo officials said.

Use of commercial voice assistant devices in clinical settings is limited, however, as consumer devices are not HIPAA compliant. And concerns about patient privacy are ongoing. But, as consumers continue to adopt smart devices, there are potential uses beyond the doctor’s office.

Pruthi envisions a future in which biometric data collected throughout the day, such as from wearables, smart speakers and other devices, will trigger a voice-enabled device to alert the consumer to a potential problem or even to remind them to take their medication.

This is all part of a drive to make healthcare more consumer-centric and personalized, Pruthi said. “We need more high touch, more interaction and engagement with the patient,” Pruthi said, noting that voice technology provides another tool for patients to interact with their providers. “We need to be more proactive in how we deliver care to improve the patient experience.”