Last week, I attended the Voice of Healthcare Summit in Boston, which was organized by Bradley Metrock, founder of Score Publishing. The conference was designed to explore the intersection between modern healthcare and technology primarily controlled by the human voice. The meeting brought together leaders from clinical, technology, and administrative settings to discuss innovations in voice user interfaces (VUI) for healthcare.

Here are my top 5 takeaways from the meeting.

1. There are innumerable use cases for voice in healthcare.

We’re at the beginning of a massive evolution where people will control computers and devices with their voices. Voice applications are becoming more prevalent in our daily lives, and that goes for healthcare as well. At the meeting, we saw dozens of use cases for voice in healthcare—in a clinical setting, accomplishing administrative tasks, and things like answering the telephone.

Diagnosis: One application that was presented, Canary Speech, listens to a patient’s voice and can enhance diagnosis, treatment, and long-term care by using a patient’s speech and language biomarkers. Canary has been granted patents in this area and has developed trained models focused on mental health, Parkison’s disease, and Alzheimer’s among others.

Care transition services: There were many examples of using voice in care transition services (MS rehabilitation, as an example) where a VUI is able to ask patients questions, and if a patient’s answers match an algorithm, create a flag for a nurse to follow up.

Data entry: Several applications are working to automate the written input from physicians that goes into the EHR/EMR—both during an office visit/procedure and after. The benefits are numerous, but the biggest is improving physician productivity.

Navigation: Brigham Young is working on a Siri-like model that helps patients navigate their campus, even as granularly as room number to room number.

Contact centers: Transform9 is automating the call center for orthopedic practices and soon other specialities as well.

2. Voice will improve physician productivity.

For decades, physicians have been hampered by the demands of inputting patient data into computers, and one of the huge issues that was brought up throughout the meeting was physician burnout. Providers are strapped with administrative tasks that make them much less efficient at their primary job, which is taking care of patients.

With a VUI, providers will be able to input data as they work, rather than between procedures or patients. Humans are able to speak at a rate of 150 words per minute, while the average person types about 35-40 words per minute, which will cut down on the amount of time they’re dealing with notes. Vanderbilt has built its own proprietary system called VERA, and there are also companies that sell digital assistants for doctors for the exam room, operating room, and office, like Suki.

One example from the meeting was a voice assistant that allows a cardiologist to input notes via voice while performing a coronary catheterization. Rather than transcribing notes after the procedure, the physician verbally instructs the system during the procedure, thereby saving at least 25% of the 15 minutes after the procedure. This results in a potential increase of revenue of $55 million for the hospital from the increase in productivity.

Voice is a very promising tool that may help reduce physician burnout and allow providers to spend more time performing procedures and engaging with patients.

3. The benefits of voice will be felt strongly in an aging population.

Many of us know very well that as we age, it gets harder and harder to read the small font on our screens. Voice will be incredibly beneficial for aging baby boomers, and particularly, people with visual impairments or limited mobility in their hands or limbs.

Visual impairment: Voice will be able to dramatically help people who are visually impaired—from eliminating the simple disruption of needing to find reading glasses to helping people who are diagnosed with Macular Degeneration (which has no cure) get voice-guided information and news, which will help keep people engaged.

Limited mobility: One example that was presented, Marvee, is a voice application that can be set up around a home and has direct barge-in so that children can check in on their elderly parents using voice. That way, the parent can answer from wherever they are in the house if they’re not mobile enough to reach a telephone quickly. Similarly, those with limited mobility in their hands and fingers are able to use a VUI instead of the traditional graphical user interfaces like typing or texting.

4. Privacy and security are paramount. 

Many of the presentations focused on the privacy and security issues that arise from implementing a voice-first model in a healthcare setting. Specifically for an application that uses VUIs like Siri, Alexa, Google Home, and other smart speakers, there are concerns about people overhearing PHI, which would potentially result in a breach of HIPAA.

The other question that arises is about the ownership of the transcripts of the conversation. Who owns the data? Some people say that Amazon is spying on us—that they are looking at our conversations with Alexa (and without), and they don’t like it. I don’t think that Amazon is listening to the private conversations in our homes (the Amazon employees I’ve met and spoken to have integrity). Smart speakers are just another form of communication, similar to how Google collects search results history (although GDPR has allowed the user to delete that history). Similarly, if you call any Fortune 500 company, the call center will record the call for quality assurance. This has been standard practice for years. Amazon says it uses the transcripts to improve future conversations—a definite benefit for the greater good.

HIPAA requires providers (and their business associates) to be in compliance with the law, protecting patient privacy. These new communication tools intersecting with healthcare will likely lead to further legislation (see number 5 below).

5. Digital health law-making matters!

One speaker, Bianca Phillips from Melbourne, Australia, has focused her practice, the Electronic Health Consulting Group, on digital health law. She practices in Australia, but thinks globally about how lawmakers legislate with regards to technology, because these laws have a major impact on services offered to the public, and how the patient may use or benefit (or not) both clinically and administratively.

Laws are made in regards to compliance, privacy, security, data ownership, and civil rights. Her focus is on the lawmakers’ processes in investigating these key topics and not making laws that inhibit innovation or make it too difficult to roll out new solutions in healthcare. Too many lawmakers are not held accountable and base their lawmaking on unsubstantiated sources that are typically filled with outdated information. To find out more about Bianca’s 8 pillars of lawmaking, check out her site.

The future of voice in healthcare

Which innovation do you think has the most potential to disrupt healthcare?

I think Canary Speech has the most significant potential benefit, but quite frankly, all of these and more are desperately needed to improve healthcare access to all (it’s simply too expensive). Why? It’s the sum-of-the-parts argument working in favor of the consumer.

If physicians can become more productive and spend more time with patients, we could bring down the cost of care. Patients could achieve better health after being discharged from the hospital and require less re-admissions, which could, again, lower cost of care. Automating back office administrative tasks or contact center duties could lower healthcare administrative burdens—and once again, decrease cost of care.

All of these examples add up to lowering the cost of care delivered, both direct and indirect, as well as improving patient outcomes. I take the sum of the parts.

Alan L. Creighton

Author Alan L. Creighton

Alan is the Founder & CEO of Transform9, currently building the first specialty-specific, automated, conversational voicebot virtual assistant for physician practices that lets patients communicate how and when they want.

More posts by Alan L. Creighton