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By Monica E. Oss

I’ve been surprised by the rapid adoption of digital “personal assistants,” which began with the introduction of Apple’s Siri in 2011. Since then the list of available tech in this space has expanded to include the Google Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, Samsung’s Bixby … and the list goes on (see Top 22 Intelligent Personal Assistants or Automated Personal Assistants). Thanks to smartphones, there are now roughly 149 million Americans using these digital assistants (see Nearly Half Of Americans Use Digital Voice Assistants, Mostly On Their Smartphones), and there are an estimated 40 million in-home “smart speaker” devices in use (see Survey: Smart Speaker Ownership Steals Time from Smartphones, TV, Radio). But the surprise for me in my personal life is that the “heavy users” of virtual assistants are the people who have traditionally had the most difficulty using technology. They enjoy the simplicity of voice commands without having to use other devices.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that the makers of virtual assistants are looking at their potential applications in health care. For now, most have the functionality to connect to WebMD to answer simple health care questions, such as “What are the side effects of ibuprofen?” Or “What are the symptoms of strep throat?” This is basic functionality similar to a web search. And there are many virtual assistants popping up as part of electronic health records (EHR) systems designed to improve clinical workflows (see Hospital Uses Intelligent Virtual Assistant for More Accurate Order Entry and athenahealth, eClinicalWorks, Epic to Launch Virtual Assistants).

But we’re also seeing movement towards new capabilities. An exciting and recent example in the press right now, available through leaked documents obtained by CNBC, is that Amazon is building a team dedicated to expanding Alexa’s health care capabilities: “The team’s main job is to make Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant more useful in the health-care field” (see Amazon Is Building A ‘Health & Wellness’ Team Within Alexa As It Aims To Upend Health). The group is working on making Alexa more health care oriented—which includes targeting areas like diabetes management, care for mothers and infants, and aging.

But also part of that story, and any advancement in health care tech and data use, are the regulations and data privacy requirements laid out by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). So far, and as the Healthcare IT News article explains, none of the voice assistants currently being used in health care setting have (or need) HIPAA business associate agreements—they aren’t using protected health data.

For an increasing number of markets, this means “stakeholders at the starting gate.”

And adoption is already happening. Examples include Northwell Health in New York using Alexa to help users identify the wait times at emergency rooms and urgent care centers, by zip code; and Libertana Home Health, which is using an app with Alexa to help consumers live independently by providing daily reminders for things like “taking medications at specified times and putting on their life alert pendant”; Commonwealth Care Alliance is conducting “drop-in” visits with members who agree to give each other access, much like a built-in intercom system (see Special Report: AI Voice Assistants Have Officially Arrived In Healthcare).

For the past decade, I’ve often thought that artificial intelligence (AI) was too complicated for use in health and human services. The executive team of many organizations that I know are unhappy with the performance of their EHR platforms, are just starting to use data in meaningful ways for management, and working at integrating telehealth into their clinical delivery processes. But maybe the “personal assistant” form of AI is different. By eliminating the need for technology management sophistication and focusing on specific end user applications, this will be easier to incorporate into the consumer interface of health and human service organizations.

I think the key to this slow-moving development will come when health care organizations begin to really use this tech as a cost-effective way to engage with consumers, and as a replacement for more expensive staffing options. What current portions of therapy can be replaced at the same (or hopefully lower) cost with same (or hopefully greater performance) by these artificial intelligence-enabled programs? As we have more answers to that, I predict more uses of AI-and that is worth a good strategic session in the coming year. For more, check out these resources from the OPEN MINDS Industry Library:

  1. Cognitive Computing & Big Data: How They Will Shape The Future Of Care Delivery
  2. From iPods To Cloud Computing – 2001 To Now
  3. Ready Or Not, Cognitive Computing Will Change Your Organization
  4. The Future Of Care Coordination? It’s Elementary, Watson
  5. Robot + Watson = ?

For more, join me on October 24 at The 2018 OPEN MINDS Technology & Informatics Institute for my plenary address, “Meeting The Innovation Challenge In Health & Human Services: Building A Nimble Management Team To Respond To Opportunities In A Value-Based Market.”

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