Alexa…Just what the doctor ordered?

The rise of Voice Assistants like Alexa and Google home are getting people from different walks of life excited by the reality of our childhood sci-fi technologies becoming reality. Will we have the Star Trek computer? Will HAL become reality? Are we creating Skynet? Whereas these new Voice Assistants have great potential in the home, they have an even greater potential in the future of Healthcare.

I am not the first, and I certainly won’t be the last to foresee that the rise of Voice Assistants has come at just the right time to influence the future of health and social care in western civilisations; from the mindfulness and wellbeing space, which can be practiced and monitored by the individual, right the way up to care led by medical professionals.

There has been quite a bit in the news recently about Voice infiltrating hospitals and ambulances in America; the tasks they are completing are merely those that a computer could complete i.e. they are not revolutionary (in the same way that setting a timer with your voice is really handy, but not revolutionary). There are however potential applications for Voice Assistants in Healthcare which are not currently possible with existing tech.

Mindfulness and Wellbeing

At the time of writing there are over 450 skills in the UK Alexa skills store in the Health and Fitness category, they range from relaxing sounds to yoga exercises to exercise tips. The development of these also range from the enthusiast and home developer, to start ups like AskLifeBot to multinationals like Oral B’s tooth brushing timer. These skills are a great starting off point for people with a desire to improve their lifestyle and are a proof of concept that Voice Assistants can be used to aid in the wellbeing of individuals in a private setting.

So if Voice can be used to aid wellbeing and low level anxiety issues, whats to stop it being taken to the next level and being used for behavioural therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Behavioural Activation (BA). It is worth noting that one of the first chatbots, developed in the 1960s, was a psychotherapist bot called ELIZA who people could not differentiate from a human. There are plenty of self help books on the market explaining these two methods of treating mental health issues, it is potentially only a matter of time before we see a rise in Voice Assistants in this space. Indeed there are smartphone applications which aid in these treatments already, apps such as Mood Coach by the US Department of Veteran Affairs who are leading the way in utilising CBT and BA to help with the rising veteran population in the USA.

Mental Health

You only need to turn on the news to understand that there is a shortage in the Mental Health Services in the UK. It was recently highlighted that on average 84 males per week commit suicide; men are also in the category of ‘least likely to talk to someone about problems’, so can we utlise voice assistant to fill that role and, potentially, bring about a significant change in the way mental health is addressed. How can the current technologies help? Another name for CBT is ‘Talking Therapy’ it is not a large jump to see that the rise of Voice Interfaces can be utlised to help in this area. The question becomes, should this be Patient led, as with the current generation of wellbeing applications, or Clinician Led. My personal opinion is both, have some Voice Applications which deal with some low level problems, but require them to include a health warning to seek out professional advice if symptoms persist. Then Clinician led treatment can take over, with applications that require logins to access that the psychologist or other medical professional can access to monitor progress. While it won’t solve the problem facing the mental health services, it may assist in the workload and hopefully reduce the amount of face to face time required with a human being.

Elderly Care

From here we can take an easy jump to the other area that is regularly in the news as struggling to find staff and funding and that is care of the elderly. Lots of people understand that the downside of an aging population is the requirement for care. The shift in the political climate over the past 3 years has also meant that the expertise that used to fill that role are no longer available in the numbers they once were. There is therefore a requirement for something to fill the void. Voice Assistants again have a part to play here. There are too many use cases to list off here as to why the aging population could benefit from having a Voice Assistants around them from simple reminders to take medication, to home automation, to the new calling features on both Alexa and Google Home and augmenting existing technology such as 169 labs are doing with an Alexa skill to augment an assistance alarm. All of these aid in the day to day living and assist in alleviating loneliness. The continued use of a voice assistant and the applications within it could help reduce the risk of dementia. Of the seven tips for reducing your risk of dementia from the Alzheimers Society, six of them have skills related to them in the Health and Fitness section of the Amazon Alexa Skill Store, the 7th, ‘Give your brain a daily workout’ only isn’t in that section as it falls into the ‘Games’ category. So without even having to go out of their way, it would be relatively simple to discover voice applications to help in this field already. It won’t be long before something like Sea Hero Quest has a voice counterpart to enable research to be done via voice interfaces as well as touch.

Medical Institutions

Voice Assistants could also be used in medical institutions. From the simple checking in or booking an appointment from the patient side to being used by doctors, nurses and other medical professionals in their day to day routines, with the correct linking this could also be used to remind the patient of everything that was said to them once they get home, remind patients to take medication or book appointments. It could also assist with note taking (once the speech to text technology advances slightly), consult databases to work out which medications are best for someone of that height, weight and with those specific allergies. Accessing a patient’s entire information without the need for a computer could save lots of time. Finally it can assist with things that can be missed due to human error, checklists etc before operations have already averted disastrous outcomes in some cases in America.

The potential for voice in healthcare is massive, the the problems lie within the capabilities of the voice recognition itself, the medical profession has no shortage of complicated words, and the text to speech engines available at the moment will only recognise those words that its programmed to recognise and even then it is not totally accurate (see my article on Homophones to find out why). Therefore if a doctor, nurse or other medical professional needed to add a certain medication that was not on the list of recognised phrases, perhaps in a rare case, then the system would not pick it up, leading to potentially disastrous consequences. There is of course the final reason that Voice Assistants will play a large part in the future of healthcare, and that is cost, as highlighted in brilliant article ‘Is Conversational AI the Future of Healthcare?’. Voice Assistants and chatbots are much cheaper than say a psychologists salary therefore it stands to reason that these will one day take over certain elements of the healthcare industry.

The introduction of multi modal design interfaces add further possibilities to what voice can do for healthcare. Although we are not there yet, we are not far away from a future where Voice Assistants can help to alleviate the workload of medical professionals the world over, and with it improve the quality of healthcare as a whole.

Disclaimer: The Author is not a medical professional or medically trained; all views expressed in the article are merely the opinions of the Author.

Veni Loqui are voice design specialists formed to create bespoke solutions for Alexa and Google Home. We are working to leverage Voice in the Health and Social Care sectors. For more information contact info@veni-loqui.com

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Rich Merrett

Creative Strategist at Vixen Labs , #voicefirst enthusiast, Organiser of Cambridge Alexa Developers Meetup. EchoDad Email:echodadinfo@gmail.com