How AI and Voice Assistants Will Change Healthcare


Healthcare is an ever-evolving field, from new policies and research to advances in medical technology and drug trials. It’s also a global industry totaling more than $8 billion annually. Finding ways to streamline this system can save both money and lives, making the scramble for industry-disrupting technologies quite competitive.

Reenita Das, Partner and Senior VP of Healthcare and Life Sciences at Frost & Sulivan, a global growth consulting and research firm, predicted eight major trends for 2019 in the global healthcare sector. Five of them specifically deal with applications of technology to change and update the field. Coming in at number six on the list is “healthcare will be a dominant vertical in voice applications.” The development of medically tailored voice technology could be valued at up to $20 billion annually, estimated Deena Zaidi, a contributor for financial websites like TheStreet, Seeking Alpha, Truthout, Economy Watch, and icrunchdata.

How Voice Will Prove Useful in Healthcare

Voice assistants have become common augmentations to some of the most frequently used technologies today. Many people are familiar with Siri, Alexa or Cortana voice assistants from Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft, respectively. However, these programs as they currently exist in our personal devices are not great fits for the medical landscape.

Voice assistants use a natural language interface in order to communicate primarily through speech. Virtual assistants, on the other hand, do not necessarily have a voice interface. Both are every bit as capable as the other, as capability is dependent on how a developer chooses to apply the assistant. Voice technology must be tailored to recognize and analyze medical jargon in order to be useful in a healthcare application.

John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, is bullish on the prospect of voice as a game changer in healthcare. “Healthcare is at a tipping point with voice,” Brownstein said in an interview with Healthcare IT News. “We haven’t seen it transform any industries. Healthcare could be a leading vertical in voice apps.”

Other leaders in innovation are less optimistic about how successful the first applications of voice will be. Sara Holoubek, CEO of Luminary Labs, remarked that “2019 will be the year of bad voice tech experiences,” at the Boston Children’s Voice. Health Summit. Of course, very few technological advancements are perfect right from the beginning, so even if 2019 is the year of voice tech failures, 2020 may be the year of successes.

Physicians and Patients Are Biggest Potential Users of Healthcare Focused Voice Assistants

 Voice assistants have two major groups of potential users in healthcare: physicians and patients. Physicians often utilize programs to take patient notes, process data, and access records. The organization of data is an important component in time-saving, and voice assistants may be the solution.

On the patient end, as a cheaper alternative to in-office visits, AI-powered virtual assistants can provide 24-hour care to a wide range of patients who may need access to care on-demand. People with chronic diseases that experience flare-ups, disabled patients with family caregivers, and rural patients living farther away from in-person medical care are just a few individuals who would benefit most from powerful virtual assistants.

Nuance Communications, a software company, developed a virtual assistant specifically for the medical space called the Dragon Medical Virtual Assistant. The program is an extension of their existing voice-to-text software used for clinical documentation.

This particular system’s capabilities include integration of voice-to-text software into Electronic Health Records (EHR), the automation of which saves time and money. Nuance has also beefed up the security around all of this information and boosted the sophistication of the voice component.

For many physicians, data entry is a burdensome task that takes time away from patient care, so this kind of automation is extremely valuable. The advent of AI to streamline these systems has many positives, including time reduction on the part of physicians, increased security around patient data, and cost-cutting for administrative needs.


Healthcare Focused AI Reaches Farther Than Voice Assistants

 The use of AI in healthcare is not confined to voice assistants. Other promising applications include disease management, data collection, and organization, and cost reduction. Perhaps the flashiest and most well-publicized use of AI in healthcare is its potential to detect, diagnose and treat diseases.

Research teams across the world are developing algorithms to identify and warn of malignant cells long before a physician’s human eyes could make the diagnosis. These algorithms are powered by a subset of AI called deep learning, which allows the program to learn from patterns and previous diagnoses.

These programs are very promising, especially for rare disease care, which is usually characterized by swiftly moving diseases with difficult treatments and short life expectancies. For a disease like malignant mesothelioma, AI could greatly improve prognosis. Research firms recognize the need to create tailored AIs to specific rare diseases and have made grants available for this specific purpose.

The Road to Implement AI in Healthcare Is Not Necessarily a Smooth One

 Despite all of these exciting advancements, AI is not the miracle cure for all of healthcare’s problems. As with any innovation, it presents a host of its own issues that will need to be addressed before full integration is possible. Some of these kinks are the cost of implementation, lack of regulations, and technological failures and shortcomings.

ABI Research has estimated that AI could save $52 billion in healthcare by 2021. However, the cost of actually purchasing these sophisticated machines will be difficult for hospitals to foot at first. This could create a disparity in quality of care for different populations without access to the hospitals that can afford AI machines.

Additionally, healthcare is a field rife with liability and regulations. Burgeoning technologies like AI come with a blank regulatory history, which could make patient and practitioner adoption slow since no one wants to open themselves up to a medical malpractice suit of any kind.

Perhaps most importantly is the simple fact that some uses of AI are still in infant stages, and not ready for wide use. This isn’t necessarily a threat to the field, it just means that there may be a long lag between the current phase of hype until actual usage.

 Keep an Eye on AI in Healthcare 

It may not be long until an algorithm is responsible for reading your CT scans and deciding if physician care is necessary, but for now, that’s on the horizon. Voice and virtual assistants seem to be the most promising and market-ready AI systems, providing innovation to an existing technology already integrated into healthcare. Artificial Intelligence is definitely something to watch in 2019, but distinguishing between the usability of different applications is important.

Emily Walsh is the Community Outreach Director of the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance.

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