The Future Is Now: Voicetech's Come Up In Patient Care

Voicetech has inundated the consumer landscape across just about every industry: automotive, government, hospitality, finance, and healthcare. The average American spends a whopping 12 hours a day in front of a screen, and at that rate, any solution to alleviate eyestrain is welcome. In fact, many people feel that speaking feels much more natural than typing, making voicetech a welcome reprieve for the eyes and the hands. Thirty-five million Americans use a voice assistant at least once a month, and at a very basic level it is used to ask and answer simple questions. But while you’re busy asking Siri to set a timer or how stars are formed, algorithms are working in the background. Within the healthcare sphere specifically, voicetech is barreling toward greater adoption in a variety of ways, not least of which by how it supports patients with care plan adherence, communication with their doctors, and the tracking of disease progression. 

Companies like Beyond Verbal or Healthymizewill simultaneously evaluate speech for pitch, rate, or repetition - specific biomarkers that help track disease progression for Parkinson’s or mental health patients. These biomarkers are important because chronic conditions like Parkinson’s have a care plan non-adherence rate of 50%, effectively costing the system $100-290 billion USD annually. To alleviate this burden, voicetech platforms like CardioCube, Sensely, and Cuida Health have stepped in. CardioCube brings healthcare services such as scheduling, prescription refills, or follow-up questions out of the monotony of telephone hold times, and right into the home. Sensely features a virtual healthcare assistant in the form of an avatar and Cuida Health will remind patients, especially the elderly, to take their medications as prescribed. Voicetech is also used for communication with physicians, creating greater access to care while simultaneously being cost efficient. What all these companies have in common is their ability to support patients wherever they are, across a spectrum of diagnoses, and thus lowering the barriers to care while empowering patients. 

While the potential for voicetech is huge, its evolution has hit a few bumps along the way – inclusivity, mental health, and gender among them – all of which are holding the technology to a higher standard of accountability and ultimately, to serve greater purpose.

For one, voicetech isn’t inclusive of the deaf community. Abhishek Singh takes a reverse approach and uses his algorithm paired with a camera to translate sign language into voice and text to enhance communication between the hearing and the non-hearing. SpeakSee is another great tool for the hard-of-hearing by translating speech to text in real time. 

Secondly, the Alexa’s and Siri’s of the world are not programmed to handle mental health needs in dire moments. Maneesh Juneja, Digital Health Futurist, has a knack for self-testing new products by engaging the bots in conversations with phrases such as “life feels hopeless.” The automated replies are so inappropriately out-of-context it would be laughable if it didn’t have such serious consequences. MIT professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland built a solution. His product Cogitoanalyzes not what is said, but how it is said, and has an 80% accuracy rate in identifying depression or suicidal behavior. 

And finally there is omnipresent gender imbalance. "Voice assistants are the maidservants of our time," said Holger Schulz at the University of Copenhagen, and "in today's world solidify and perpetuate gender hierarchies, unequal treatment, and exploitation." The perception that female voices are soothing and therefore encourage continued product engagement is one of the oft criticized qualities of Alexa and Siri. Alternatively, creative agency Virtue released what they call the “first gender-neutral” voice: Q. Using a proprietary linguist software, developed by Anna Jørgensen, 4,600 test subjects across Europe have now rated the voice as gender neutral. While still in its infancy, the company hopes to integrate within other products soon. At the very least, Amazon, Apple, and their friends can start to take notes. The future (of voicetech) is gender neutral. 

What’s unique about the public discourse today, is a transparency and responsibility to innovate wisely and with empathy. While voicetech has encountered its bumps, it has in equal measure been met with solutions. Even so, the benefits of voicetech are undeniable. The once-futuristic technology is not only creating more efficient systems and processes within healthcare, but also in everyday life. Consumers drive adoption in a variety of categories and the expectation that voicetech will serve them within the clinical realm stems from their adoption of this technology in other spheres. As for ubiquity, we’re not quite there yet. Accuracy in voicetech is at 96%, but, as Lisa Suennen points out, you “cannot rely on good enough when it comes to healthcare.” In the meantime though, typing may become a thing of the past.

Grace Moen