At first it was a novelty: Hospitals began using voice assistants to allow patients to order lunch, check medication regimens, and get on-demand medical advice at home.
But these devices, manufactured by Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft and others, are now making deeper inroads into patient care. Hospitals are exploring new uses in intensive care units and surgical recovery rooms, and contemplating a future in which Alexa, or another voice avatar, becomes a virtual member of the medical team — monitoring doctor-patient interactions, suggesting treatment approaches, or even alerting caregivers to voice changes that could be an early warning of a health emergency.
“Why not have a connected speaker in the room listening to conversations?” asked John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, which is piloting dozens of voice applications. Voice technology still remains at the edges of patient care, he added, but the hospital is already using it to improve the efficiency of ICU care and help prepare doctors for transplant surgeries.
In New York, Northwell Health is preparing to put Alexa in private rooms next month to allow patients to tap into their medical records. And Mayo Clinic is using voice to deliver wound care instructions to some surgical patients and is studying the technology’s ability to diagnose cardiovascular disease and other conditions.
Underlying that work is an increasingly fierce competition for health care dollars among giant technology companies and scores of startups that are investing heavily in voice-enabled products and services. Clinicians are waiting to see which of the largest companies will be the first to introduce a smart speaker that fully complies with health care privacy laws, a step that would allow them to delve even deeper into patient care.
With artificially intelligent voice assistants rapidly becoming pervasive in the consumer marketplace, many people are familiar with the devices and may soon expect the same convenience in health care settings.
Image Credit: Hyacinth Empinado / STAT