AI-based smart speakers in healthcare: a game changer or a fad?

AI-based smart speakers in healthcare: a game changer or a fad?
© iStock/Kristina-Kokhanova

Did you know that the market volume of virtual assistants including chatbots and smart speakers in healthcare is expected to hit $1.7 billion by 2024?

Artificial intelligence isn’t a new discovery for the industry, but this technology continuously unlocks additional application areas in parallel with the general growth in computational powers. For instance, preliminary diagnosis, clinical decision support, dosage calculation, and fraud detection are among the most current and sought-out application areas in AI consulting for healthcare organizations. It seems like the new addition to these areas is about to arise in a form of voice-controlled smart assistants, aka smart speakers.

Practically, AI speakers are next level chatbots. They got smarter, their NLP algorithms can now process audial information, and they have additional resources to answer questions beyond time and weather. Depending on a particular speaker’s hardware and software capacity, its voice-controlled assistant can schedule reminders, give driving directions, activate other connected devices at home or within a person’s workplace, and more.

In the healthcare context, smart speakers can be equally appreciated both at patients’ homes and in the clinical setting. For instance, chronic patients could benefit from medication reminders and basic symptom logging. In turn, health specialists could start voicing certain examination notes to the speaker to document the findings in the EHR right away instead of doing the documenting part manually and after seeing the patient.

Fascinated by the opportunities, the industry doesn’t hesitate to hop on the smart speakers’ bandwagon. According to the recent forecast by Research and Markets, the market volume of healthcare virtual assistants including chatbots and smart speakers is expected to hit $1.7 billion (~€1.5 billion) by 2024. Another research projects that about 900,000 smart speakers will be used in healthcare by 2021. With the increasing adoption of AI-powered smart speakers in healthcare, we might just witness how talking becomes the new typing across the clinical facilities and patient homes.

Voice to unlock remote patient care

With smart speakers, care delivery can start at the patient’s home instead of the physician’s office. Some health concerns could be treated with over-the-counter medications and don’t require the patient to make time for the appointment if they just need clarification and a piece of medically valid treatment advice.

Such applications as Dr. A.I. or KidsMD can give their users preliminary suggestions based on their symptoms and complaints, helping them to avoid unneeded office visits. In the meantime, the patient’s ability to be more mindful about their health status will serve them good and ensure timely consultation even when the symptoms seem insignificant.

Another patient care opportunity lies in chronic and geriatric care. Voice-activated assistants can bring in substantial functionality to help patients manage their conditions. Such help can include reminding to take medications, offering to log symptoms, providing health tips, and generally creating an engaging way to balance the health status without endless tapping on the screen.

Additionally, conversing with the virtual assistant can be a more preferable approach to health monitoring for the more mature population. A voice interface can feel more natural than a GUI, which can lower potential adoption barriers. So, even if the older person can’t or doesn’t want to use smartphones or other gadgets due to difficulties with the interface navigation, they might get used to AI speakers almost right away.

Voice to free hands in critical and sterile conditions

One thing in common between the ICU, emergency department, surgical site or EMT’s vehicle is that these clinical settings limit the ability of health specialists to access information and make decisions. Sterility and time constraints require precise and highly optimised interaction between nurses, surgeons, technicians and other professionals. But they still have to be flexible in order to address arising complexities and outstanding cases.

Embracing smart speakers in healthcare can allow more flexibility and transparency in the interaction between the specialists who can then obtain the information they need faster and directly from the system that contains it. For example, surgeons can query the inventory and directly request the particular stents instead of asking nurses to go and search the storage manually. Nurses, in turn, can refresh their knowledge about anatomy or get step-by-step guidance when they are performing invasive procedures.

In 2016, the IDHA (Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator) showcased the use of voice-controlled AI speakers at Boston Children’s Hospital. In particular, they demonstrated how surgeons could navigate the pre-operative organ validation process and get through the checklist with voice commands given to the AI assistant. The IDHA also piloted the voice control support in the hospital’s intensive care unit. They allowed the nurses in the ICU to request important administrative information, for example, on free beds within particular wards, directly from their IT system via smart speakers.

Voice to alleviate hospital stay

Similar to smart home voice control, smart speakers in healthcare can make hospital rooms way smarter and more patient friendly. Patients won’t need nurses to adjust their window blinds, change the temperature a bit, dim the lights or turn on the TV. Nurses, in turn, will be able to concentrate on less routine tasks and manage more complex processes with fewer switchovers, increasing their personal efficiency and, hopefully, even cutting on over hours.

Cedars-Sinai employed a smart speaker to help their patients control the room environment independently with their voice. For example, they could turn on the TV, change channels, and make assistance requests that will be referred to their nurses. While only a pilot, this initiative already improves patient experience, helping patients feel more independent and cared for at the same time.

Cleveland Clinic took on the other aspect of hospital stay experience—loneliness episodes, especially acute for patients after invasive procedures or being in quarantine. They enabled a voice-controlled assistant to help their patients feel less lonely while recovering within the facility. In particular, the patients can ask for daily health tips, request news, check the weather, and make other basic information requests.

Health specialists need voice

According to a recent survey of paediatricians, 48% of physicians have expressed their willingness to enable AI speakers in their care practice. Another 36% of the respondents remained undecided due to lack of familiarity with the technology and uncertainty about the ways it could be used in care delivery. Only 16% of all the physicians surveyed weren’t ready to try voice-controlled assistance.

These potential adopters were open about their opinions on how smart speakers could improve their practice. In particular, patient engagement and education both during appointments and outside the facility were named as one of the most prospective applications for AI speakers.

The industry is yet to find all possible applications for smart speakers, however. With continuously improving capabilities of AI algorithms, there will be more fascinating opportunities to employ voice within different care settings, supporting both patients and health specialists across all critical care points.

Yaroslav Kuflinski
AI/ML Observer

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