Sophisticated computing technology is changing the way we communicate; not only with the people in our lives and the services we need, but with the physical body we care for each day.
Digital medicine enables a more personalized approach to treatment and intervention. With improved voice-recognition technology, the lines between “man” and “machine” are becoming increasingly blurred.
Today’s voice-enabled digital assistants are paving the way for a better dialogue between patients and physicians, and between patients and their own personal well-being. This is what is new in the world of voice assistance and health technology.
Listening, Learning and Speaking
While there are a few basic differences in the way the voice assistance programs engage with the user, they each operate on the basic premise that voice is a more convenient and more personal interface than the keyboard or mouse. You can speak to them, just as you would to another person and they'll run your speech using sophisticated algorithms in order to understand what it is that you want. The newest releases of this type of software show a remarkable ability to understand not just the specific words that are spoken but also the context and flow of human conversation.
Health and Wellness Applications
The most immediate application for virtual assistants is to translate human speech into text, sparing the user the need to type commands in manually, for example, when searching for medical information on the web. These cutting-edge applications possess many further abilities that might not be immediately apparent. The virtual assistants can remind patients when it's time to take their medicine and manage to-do lists more effectively than a person could do unassisted. Or when there's an accident and mobility is impaired, the sufferer can summon emergency help by requesting it aloud in situations where it would be difficult or impossible to physically access a phone.
With improving natural language recognition, the development of intelligent software agents may enhance patient engagement to a considerable extent. According to Nathan Treloar, president and COO of Orbita, a Boston-based provider of connected home health care technology, “it really changes the game for patient engagement.” In an interview earlier this year, he said “the ability to have that ‘always on and always available’ interaction with a patient is huge. It will give [healthcare providers] new visibility into what the patient is experiencing at home.”
Those with poor eyesight can certainly review their own health histories more successfully through voice than with traditional text displays. Voice-controlled software can also offer advice and support for diabetic patients. And with a digital helper like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant acting as base control for numerous home automation devices, seniors and individuals with chronic conditions can live at home more comfortably because they don't have to get up and operate various mechanisms by hand. Even further, the digital “gamification” of wellness activities turns exercise and diet routines into fun-filled game-like challenges. Symptom-tracking apps, like Cancergraph, allow a patient to record, in real time, their reactions to treatments and any side effects they experience. All of this information reveals a bounty of data for healthcare professionals who oftentimes lack detailed information on patient well-being.
A New Voice in Healthcare
Healthcare is a critical sector of the economy with annual expenditures estimated at $228 billion and rising, so it's no surprise that tech firms large and small are competing for a slice of this revenue via mobile health and connected health platforms. Lenovo is currently working on a Smart Assistant that will facilitate the seamless transfer of health information between individuals and their care teams. The Apple HealthKit framework currently logs fitness information and is hoping to add interpretation functions to the HealthKit, turning it into a valuable diagnostic aid. Amazon's Alexa is rapidly becoming a source for health-related support. Boston Children's Hospital has created an Alexa Skill that can help nurses determine the right medication dosages for children; other potential uses for this voice assistant include transcribing medical notes and alleviating doctors' paperwork obligations.
The story of voice recognition innovations in health care is largely unwritten. There are many bumps in the road on the way to wider adoption. As the digital and physical worlds continue to merge, we will soon see many new pathways towards better patient care through ever-improving voice technology.
Beth Kotz is a freelance writer and contributor for numerous home, technology and personal finance blogs. She graduated with a BA in Communications and Media from DePaul University in Chicago, IL where she continues to live and work.