Cortana opens up the future for a healthcare virtual assistant

Microsoft recently released their own virtual assistant into the market, inviting thoughts of potential healthcare applications.

Joining the likes of Google Now and Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana provides virtual assistant services to its users through interaction with their mobile devices. Can a virtual assistant tailored to healthcare needs, residing on our smartphones, be far behind?

Cortana, originally known as the artificial intelligence character from the game Halo, was introduced by Microsoft to Bing and Windows mobile users. As with Siri and Google Now, users speak commands, which are then analyzed and fulfilled by online servers. Virtual assistants can perform requests such as locating the closest restaurant, performing online searches, or creating reminders on mobile devices for specific events.

Within the healthcare arena, these virtual personal assistants can enable a much higher level of connectivity and interaction between patients and providers. Numerous areas within healthcare can provide a launching pad for these technologies to be used for improved patient outcomes.

Assisting patients with their care: For discharged patients that are being monitored outside the hospital facility, it can be cumbersome to continuously track their condition through mobile devices and applications. A virtual assistant will offer these patients more flexibility by capturing data through their voices. By using natural language processing optimized for healthcare, virtual assistants will better understand patients' needs and conditions, and will have more meaningful data to report on.

Improving call centers: Many call centers still rely on live customer service support to respond to the incoming patient queries. Hospital systems have found some relief by handing off certain tasks -- such as requests for lab results, scheduling appointments and checking account balances -- to interactive voice response systems (IVRs). However, the functions of some IVRs are stunted because they are fully connected to EHR systems and other resources.

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Cortana, Google Now, Siri and IBM's Watson possess high-powered engines that can interact with unstructured data and fulfill requests at a highly accurate rate. Sick or injured patients may soon be able to call a hospital system and have an IVR tell them whether they should head to an emergency room or to their primary care physicians, depending on their condition and medical history.

Smaller things will have a bigger impact: In today's fast-paced healthcare environment, filling out paperwork every time a patient visits a new practice is time-consuming. Many continue to hope for a more connected healthcare industry where information can flow in and out of systems, cutting down on this wasted time. Until that becomes a reality, patients can dictate their information to their personal assistant and have it automatically captured and loaded into their chart. These small interactions between systems and patients will reduce paper-based documents, and also create opportunities for digitally captured data to be used immediately.

We continue to see a number of innovations involving personal assistants. What began with mobile devices will soon move to TVs, desktops and other electronic devices with which we interact. Individuals could soon have a virtual butler that knows their likes and dislikes. The deployment of a healthcare virtual assistant may be able to help answer patients' medical questions and report any relevant data back to their physicians.

About the author:
Reda Chouffani is vice president of development with Biz Technology Solutions Inc., which provides software design, development and deployment services for the healthcare industry. Let us know what you think about the story; email editor@searchhealthit.com or contact @SearchHealthIT on Twitter.

This was first published in April 2014

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