“Echo, what time is my MRI scheduled?”
Voice interface technology has long promised to make accessing information and completing simple tasks more convenient. By now, you’ve likely heard of or talked to Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, or Amazon’s Alexa. The convenience these interfaces provide is evident to those who’ve integrated them into their routines. But that same convenience is sorely lacking in healthcare. This need is particularly felt in skilled settings like health systems and nursing homes. Information for patients is obtuse or unavailable, and caregivers are overwhelmed with administrative burdens and distracted from patient care. Healthcare — in particular, patients, providers, and facilities — would benefit from thoughtfully implementing voice interface technology to improve the patient experience. Let’s take a look at the hospital inpatient experience.
It is no secret that Americans are rapidly aging and older patients are increasingly reliant on healthcare. Many are taken from the comforts of their own homes and end up in solitary, unfamiliar hospital rooms for long periods. Aging also may bring physical debility, specifically with one’s sensations and mobility. Currently, hospitals employ providers from a variety of backgrounds, including different regions of the U.S. and other parts of the world. It is sometimes difficult for older patients to hear and understand the tone, pace, inflection, and accent of the caregivers who give them valuable information each day, often in a hurried manner and with arcane language. Voice interfaces can deliver clear, slow, unhurried speech at a volume that works for the patient to increase comprehension, and enable recall later on. Moreover, patients with mobility or dexterity issues can find it challenging to accomplish simple things in their hospital rooms that increase their comfort during such an uncomfortable time (e.g., changing the room’s temperature, turning on/off TV, turning on/off lights, sitting up/back electric beds and chairs). A voice interface can be the patient’s assistant in achieving comfort.
For inpatient providers, a voice interface can offload mundane tasks as well as provide continual care. For example, basic nursing and case management admissions assessments that confirm or update prior patient information or update new fields consume a lot of unskilled time. Voice interfaces can help to liberate these busy, important resources from documentation burdens. As another scenario, patients often wonder when they can next take their medicine (let’s assume an as-needed pain medicine). Rather than tying up a nurse, through (as-yet) integration with the facility’s electronic health record the voice interface could inform the patient when their next available dose is available, and send a message to alert the nurse at the appropriate time that it has been requested. And for those medical professionals who are otherwise tied up daily with busy caseloads, the voice interface could serve as a continual companion and coach (e.g. to perform physical therapy exercises) or as an on-demand guide (e.g. through a mindfulness exercise to reduce distress).
From a facilities standpoint, the voice interface could help with logistics and ensuring an on-time schedule. Both patients and their visitors get hungry. The voice assistant can help the patient order their food, freeing someone from fielding many telephone calls in the kitchen. Can’t read the menu because of poor eyesight? No problem. The voice interface can read it aloud to you. Moreover, when guests come to visit, they can interact with the voice interface to efficiently learn what eateries are on campus and what their hours of operation are. But there are times when the patient is not eating because of a procedure or scan. In these cases, the voice interface can help keep their schedules on-time by informing the patient of the procedure’s details and scheduled times, and remind them of any preparation needed throughout the day.
It is clear that many — even most — of the scenarios discussed above are not technically feasible today. It is not for a lack of capable technology, but more related to data standards agreed upon, voice privacy and security, and integration with electronic health records. It is not a question of IF we will see voice interfaces in patient rooms, but WHEN it will be possible. While improving the inpatient experience is one area of emphasis, there is a tremendous need throughout healthcare, such as in remote patient monitoring, patient adherence, improving the provider experience, etc. I am hopeful that the thoughtful implementation of technology will make high-quality care more accessible, convenient, effective, and affordable for all. I predict voice interfaces will be a foundational technology in this future for patients and providers alike.
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