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Virtual assistants part of expanding patient engagement

Patient portals, mHealth apps and free-standing kiosks are some of the more technologically advanced engagement methods used by providers.

As the use of big data moves closer to center stage, it has brought attention to other technologies and allowed them to flourish. Virtual assistants are one of these technologies. Virtual assistants contain artificial intelligence that combines strong decision support systems and leverages big data, natural language processing and voice recognition. These features are part of the reason virtual assistants have proven to engage consumers.

Within healthcare, there are many ongoing engagement initiatives to provide patients with different self-service options. The following are some of the common patient engagement technologies seen within healthcare organizations:

Automated calling systems and interactive voice response systems (IVRs). It's increasingly common to receive a text or voicemail to confirm a scheduled surgery, a follow-up appointment or an outstanding bill from your care provider's office or hospital. This communication provides a way for health groups to reduce no-shows, as well as eliminate outstanding balances. However, these communication systems provide limited functionality outside of the basic system. A patient can confirm an appointment or forward to a call center to process a credit card payment, depending on the nature of their call. Unlike some of the advanced IVRs utilized by the financial institutes, healthcare organizations have yet to see a significant level of engagement from patients when using these products.

MHealth apps. With people already using their smart devices to track fitness progress, do their banking and schedule many of their day-to-day activities, some health organizations are encouraging patients to use their mobile devices to order refills, confirm appointments, track their health and fill up any forms ahead of their appointments. Unfortunately, this approach may only be effective for certain age brackets.

Patient portals. Adoption of patient health portals is still growing at a modest rate. Ideally, online portals would be where all patients go to confirm appointments, fill out their medical and social history form, update health records, view lab results, and pay any outstanding balances.

Kiosks. What seems to work for other industries does not seem to get the same response within healthcare. Kiosks have great potential for collecting patient information. Despite its many available forms (free-standing kiosks, tablets and laptops) the kiosk has yet to see the adoption rate expected by some within the healthcare industry.

Outsourced call centers. In some cases, hospitals and other medical practices use third-party organizations to call patients prior to their appointment time to collect the data required for their visit. Medical history and other data is collected by a call center agent and entered directly into the care facility's registration system and EHR for storage and later use. This model can be more cost-effective, as pricing models are based on patient volume. Electronic storage also provides a way to ensure that information is discrete and minimizes the use of paper-based documents. While this might sound like an attractive option, it can be costly, which prevents some organizations from considering its benefits.

The reality is that we may be trying too hard to make all of these technologies work. Other markets have been able to adopt and take a different approach to customer service. Humans tend to feel more comfortable communicating verbally. With that in mind, having a team of employees available 24/7/365 to collect information, be responsive, positive and friendly is ideal for any organization. That dream is slowly becoming a reality, and some of the big technology players are betting on it.

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Intel Corp. recently acquired a company called Indisys, which specializes in virtual assistant technology. Microsoft Corp. has invested in developing its Cortana technology, the equivalent of Siri for Windows mobile. IBM Corp.'s Watson and Siri are the most visible examples of the growing virtual assistants market.

Reviewing the success seen by some of the virtual assistants used in retail and other industries underscores that there is an opening for them to be accepted in healthcare. Medical virtual assistants (MVAs) can be used within a healthcare organization to collect basic demographic information, insurance details and basic health history. If patients become more accepting of MVAs, what will it mean to a health organization?

It would allow healthcare organizations to reallocate their human resources. Facilities can use as much help as possible, with reimbursements shrinking and health IT costs rising. Organizations can increase care quality, patient satisfaction and patient outcomes with the same or fewer number of employees. This frees up finances to be used to adopt innovative technologies and attract the best talent.

Discrete data. MVAs can interact with patients and digitally capture their information. The information can be repeated and verified in real time. So when a patient interacts with the virtual assistant, a query to a medication hub is checked and compared against any information previously stored in the facility's database. Once everything is confirmed, then all that information is processed, scrubbed and populated into the EHR system without any need for paper records.

Virtual assistants will always need support. While systems today can accurately record all of a patient's data, it's likely double-checked by a human being. This backup should be available immediately to clarify any misunderstandings or data inconsistencies. Ultimately, this allows the MVA to improve by learning from its mistakes.

Access anywhere, anytime. For many people in the aging population, it is far more effective to have verbal communication along with visual interaction, instead of a phone call or electronic communication. MVAs can be accessible via websites, smartphones, tablets and PCs. These systems can recognize returning patients and remember recent interactions. They are also able to educate many patients.

The virtual assistant market currently offers mature systems that are able to deliver solutions for complex scenarios. While healthcare may not be on the bleeding edge when it comes to adopting these types of systems, we do expect to eventually see one of these virtual assistants in a hospital soon enough. Just as some gamers have grown to like the artificial intelligence Cortana from the popular Halo games, the next virtual assistant might just be our favorite "person" to talk to when we are in the hospital. The right virtual assistant will know everything about our health and follow up with patients when they go home to direct them on how to take their medication and collect and monitor their vitals.

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 or contact @SearchHealthIT on Twitter.

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