For healthcare providers, the COVID-19 pandemic added an extra layer of complexity to their service provision. Not only did the sector have to deal with an overload of seriously ill people, but there were the implications of a contagious virus to cope with too.
Lockdowns and other measures designed to stop the spread of COVID-19 made it difficult – or impossible - to see, diagnose and care for everyone in person. Voice-enabled services have been in development and used in the healthcare sector for years. However, the pandemic shifted the focus to how and how quickly they could be implemented on a wider scale.
What is voice-enabled technology?
Whether you call it voice-activated, voice-recognition, voice-control, or voice-enabled software, its key aim is to make our lives safer, faster, and smarter. And it's not just helpful in getting the weather forecast, your account balance or using a smartphone safely while driving.
The most commonly used and well-known apps include Siri on your smartphone, Amazon's Alexa, and Google Assistant. They reduce our dependence on a keyboard or other interface to operate devices. Voice assistants can be used to find information, play media, negotiate company telephone menus and more.
They can simplify and expedite processes before a 'real' person needs to take over - or negate the need for one at all. They can also allow tasks to be carried out more quickly: people speak faster than they type, so using your voice can be extremely useful.
Applications for voice-enabled services in the healthcare industry
The use of voice-enabled technology in healthcare is not limited to making it easier for doctors to dictate patient notes. From providing patients with information on their conditions and access to services to detecting and treating various ailments, voice-recognition software offers many possibilities.
A patient journey through the system from first accessing a healthcare service to exiting it can be arduous. However, there are plenty of areas where this journey is being improved with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) solutions using voice recognition.
Reduced and better admin For example, Nuance provides the Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust with speech recognition technology for dictating patient records. Speech recognition should "reduce administrative burden by enabling clinicians to produce documentation up to 45% faster, also capturing up to 20% more relevant data".
Reduced costsBy using voice-activated menus, information provision, and triage and diagnosis tools during phone calls, providers can reduce the number of call handlers they require. As a result, more information can be gleaned or imparted before an employee talks to a patient. In some cases, the virtual assistant will be sufficient, and no interaction with a person will be necessary.
Faster treatments for minor ailmentsInstead of visiting a pharmacist, doctor, or even a hospital emergency department, patients can access various apps via Alexa. These are designed to answer questions and provide information on things like migraines, basic first aid, children's ailments, and so on. In the US, some regulations were relaxed for healthcare providers so they could produce effective apps.
DiagnosisAs voice-enabled technologies become more sophisticated, the opportunities for diagnostic tools increases. Voice recognition can already use them in identifying Parkinson's disease and respiratory disorders (including COVID). In addition, research is underway into using voice-enabled technology to identify conditions such as PTSD, brain injury, depression, and heart disease. And the progression of some diseases can be monitored using voice.
Better hospital experienceIt used to be a buzzer, but now some hospitals use voice-enabled technology at the bedside for patients who need assistance. The patient can tell the app what help they need, and the application will prioritise and route the request to the right resource. The app will assure the patient that their request is being dealt with, and staff can ensure the right person appears on time. This makes it faster, easier, and more convenient for both staff and patients.
Easier aftercareOn discharge, patients are often given leaflets and told to call the doctor if they have a problem. The Mayo Clinic in Minnesota gives its dermatology patients an Amazon Echo speaker instead. Alexa gives them all the guidance they need, no matter how many times they ask for it, and will answer any follow-up questions. This saves nurses repeating the same details each day and ensures patients have the correct information to hand at all times.
Reliable informationThe pandemic highlighted how dangerous mis- and disinformation can be. Whether or not it spreads maliciously, false information about medical conditions and treatments can be annoying at best and lethal at worst. Providers are working together to combat incorrect information. For example, Google blocked third-party developers from adding apps about the pandemic, helping to ensure that only reliable information is available.
What are the limitations of voice-enabled technologies?
There is always the risk of a server being down, power failure, or user error as with any technology. The human voice is an incredibly complex instrument, and artificial intelligence solutions are continually improving. However, there will be limitations to recognition and comprehension. And there is always the possibility that people are faking or attempting to hide symptoms.
Healthcare providers need to be ready with the proper IT infrastructure to integrate voice-enabled technologies, including electronic health records. In addition, finding the correct balance between privacy and efficacy will be essential.
A brighter future for the healthcare industry
The healthcare industry will have to address all these points carefully to ensure they and their clients get the best out of the technology available to them. Voice-enabled technologies will make a massive difference to the patient experience. And that's something in which we all have a vested interest.
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