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Digital voice assistants seek their place in healthcare

At their respective conferences this spring, Microsoft and Google unveiled new features for their digital assistants that may help them gain adoption in healthcare.

Today, consumers have gotten accustomed to digital voice assistants in their homes that take commands and act on them when they have the appropriate skills to do so. Over the past few years, more features have been introduced to these voice-enabled devices, and now consumers are able to order groceries, make phone calls and control their smart homes. However, digital voice assistants currently have limited uses in healthcare. Most interactions patients have with these assistants are around simple commands such as medication reminders, directions to the nearest ER and its wait time, and a few others due to HIPAA restrictions on data exchange and security requirements.

Despite the limited use of the digital voice assistants in healthcare, Microsoft and Google may push their tools to offer more capabilities to patients, and healthcare organizations will see an increase in their exposure to them.

Microsoft's voice assistant Cortana exists in every Windows 10 device and is available for download on smartphones. However, it has not been as popular and widely adopted in homes as Google or Amazon.

To address the lack of adoption of its digital assistant at home, during its Build 2018 Microsoft highlighted its integration with Amazon Alexa where a user can now ask Alexa to open Cortana. This partnership between the two organizations will significantly increase Cortana's reach and allow more users to interact with Microsoft's own AI and other third-party skills.

For patients, this also means Cortana can now provide them with access to their work calendars, email and other key data that can relate to their health record and healthcare provider. With Cortana's ability to integrate with different systems behind the scene, thanks to the bot framework, Azure and the popularity of .NET development, healthcare will likely see more uses of Cortana for patients.

During the keynote at the Google IO developer conference, CEO Sundar Pichai offered the audience a preview of its new Duplex digital voice assistant. The preview demonstrated how Google's digital personal assistant can perform commands that require it to call and interact with individuals verbally. The demo included two different calls that demonstrated how AI can schedule an appointment at a hair salon or book a restaurant reservation by talking to a real person on the other end naturally. The short interactions between the machine and person on the other end highlighted how far Google has advanced its AI capabilities, and some of the takeaways included:

  • the resemblance of the AI voice and conversation to a human;
  • the digital assistant's ability to naturally interact with a human without any script or content;
  • the digital assistant's ability to interact with the calendar data of its user and decide the next best time slot; and
  • the use of emotional intelligence by AI in its conversation.

Healthcare organizations looking to ease the pain of appointment setting by pushing their patients to their web portal may find themselves seeing an uptick in incoming calls from Google's digital voice assistant. It is likely that the assistant will develop other capabilities as the platform gets adopted.

Microsoft and Google continue to invest heavily into their AI capabilities. While they both continue to have healthcare-specific AI investments, for the most part the capabilities introduced during their developer conferences highlight the efforts they have made around digital voice assistants and what they can bring to the consumers. Still, patients -- who are also consumers -- across the globe may soon benefit from having digital voice assistants that can help with their healthcare-related appointments and tasks.

This was last published in November 2018

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