Why Toby Cosgrove thinks voice recognition is healthcare's next 'killer app'

In addition to new technologies like artificial intelligence that are already gaining a foothold in healthcare, former Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove, M.D., said he thinks the next big technology in healthcare will be voice recognition. 

“Voice recognition is the killer app,” said Cosgrove, who was offering his perspective on the future of healthcare delivery and innovation during the U.S. News & World Report Healthcare of Tomorrow conference on Friday. Cosgrove, who now advises Google on its healthcare initiatives, was offering his first-hand look at how tech can transform the industry, even though Google itself is still settling on the exact role it wants to play. 

Of course, these voice recognition tools are already being developed and improved by Silicon Valley’s biggest names, including Google, Amazon and Apple, with tools such as Google Home, Alexa and Siri. But their applications could offer the path to simplifying the administrative burdens caused by electronic health records, Cosgrove said. 

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In an appointment, for example, doctors could speak to the EHR and patients’ data would automatically populate into the system, he said. This would eliminate the need for a physician to sit at a keyboard for an entire visit, something that’s unpopular with patients as well as doctors. Voice software could also be applied to diagnostics and intake, Cosgrove said. For example, there are tools now that recognize when people are intoxicated based on their vocal cues. 

Voice recognition is just one example of tech that could be built on top of cumbersome EHRs to improve efficiency and eliminate “a lot of pain and a lot of heartache” that comes with those systems, he said. Retinal scanners, for instance, could be used in similar ways, Cosgrove said, and when that data is processed by machine learning software it could flag dozens of conditions in seconds for providers.

Google has been beefing up its healthcare initiatives of late. Last week, it hired away Geisinger CEO David Feinberg, M.D., to head its projects, with the hope that he could consolidate programs that are spread out across different Google business areas.

It is also working the National Institutes of Health to offer a biomedical database for researchers. 

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Though Google is “still in the process of figuring out what’s next” in its healthcare work, Cosgrove said that its 35,000 employed engineers and large coffers can jump into many different aspects, even through Google’s existing platforms like cloud storage and artificial intelligence.

Healthcare’s rapid—and at times not-so-rapid—technological transformation is both “a blessing and a curse” for the industry, Cosgrove said. Providers have a wealth of data at their fingertips, but processing and storing all that information remains a major challenge. 

But the “explosion of knowledge” related to that data, even as it overwhelms hospital’s in-house data centers, offers plenty of ways to improve the efficiency of care and make it more personal. 

“The blessing is now there’s a tremendous opportunity to analyze that data and find new things,” Cosgrove said.