How Voice Recognition May Improve Patient Engagement

Posted on by Frank J. Rosello

Try trotting this one out at a party: there are now more cell phones than there are toilets in the world.

That’s according to a recent UN study, and while the study is actually focused on what the UN deems a global sanitation crisis, to many healthcare stakeholders the number of people with access to cellphones – around 6 billion, the study estimates – constitutes a major opportunity to increase access to healthcare.

As Nick van Terheyden, MD, CMIO for Nuance Communications, sees it, the preponderance of mobile voice technologies is going to give a big boost to efforts to empower patients to take a more active role in their own healthcare.

“People’s interaction with technology changes dramatically when you have voices involved,” said van Terheyden. He pointed to the success of Apple’s Siri technology as perhaps the most encouraging example – suggesting that the technology’s prominent role in a recent episode of the hit TV comedy, The Big Bang Theory, is a clear sign that voice recognition technology has arrived in the mainstream.

In reality, he said, we’ve been taking small steps toward embracing these technologies for quite some time, with guided interactions on telephone systems being a widespread example.

When it comes to healthcare, van Terheyden sees three trends picking up speed as a result of the spread of conversational user interfaces. CUIs go beyond mere speech recognition.

As Wired explained recently, CUI is an “intelligent” interface “because it combines these voice technologies with natural-language understanding of the intention behind those spoken words, not just recognizing the words as a text transcription. The rest of the intelligence comes from contextual awareness (who said what, when and where), perceptive listening (automatically waking up when you speak) and artificial intelligence reasoning.”

As van Terheyden sees it, healthcare has three big things to gain from CUI, especially on the patient engagement front.

1. Providers and healthcare organizations will get more data. “People just give more information than they would have,” van Terheyden said, when they encounter CUI. Indeed, some surveys have revealed that some people are actually more comfortable talking to a machine than to a human, as they don’t tend to feel as intimidated, or even judged, when talking to a machine.

2. CUI simplifies interactions and will remove barriers. Noting that “the simplicity of the interaction just changes the quality of the engagement,” van Terheyden used his octogenarian mother as an example of a person “who is able to interact with her iPhone with her voice more easily than with websites” and other communications technologies. Given that facility, “voice enablement can become an essential tool in patient engagement efforts.”

Moreover, he said CUI will start to level the playing field by helping patients overcome the complexity in terminology that has come to define healthcare. “Voice is part of the solution,” he said, “because the technology is designed to interpret synonyms. CUI will start to give you access to information that you historically might not have had.”

3. CUI is going to increase the adoption of other technologies. According to van Terheyden, one of the major impediments to using technology to encourage patient engagement has been the complexity of the tools and the steepness of the learning curve. The spread of CUI, however, will lower those barriers as it provides patients with an easier way to understand and use new technologies.

“Voice is the most natural form of communication,” he said, and the primary goal with CUI is to make interacting with machines as easy as possible. Once that happens, the rest of the engagement will seem almost natural.

Article written by Jeff Rowe

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