Although Amazon and Google have both set their sights on the healthcare industry in a variety of ways- from taking steps to become a provider to creating technology that could benefit the industry at large – one area that has a long way to go is voice technology. While there have been accounts of hospitals and providers using voice assistants, to-date most use cases are for creating internal efficiencies such as allowing practitioners to more easily dictate information, spend less time on paperwork and speed up certain areas of patient service. Although Voice technology has shown potential as a home healthcare solution, there is ample room for expanded application.

In fact, a recent study performed by Quartz found most voice applications (‘skills’ on Alexa) to not only be deficient in consumer healthcare content and servicing, but potentially misleading or harmful. A major reason for the disconnect between healthcare authorities and their ability to transfer expertise, education and diagnoses through these new devices is the lack of HIPPA compliance. HIPPA compliance would allow the devices to process personal healthcare information and provide significantly more accurate information based on a patient’s history and data. In the meantime, device applications have been left with limited ability to provide relevant information to users and are only able to provide generic symptom information and broad recommendations.

The tech industry is working hard to make voice technology platforms compliant and it is expected that this will become a reality sometime in the next couple of years if not sooner. Until then, there are still ways that the technology can provide tremendous value for the home healthcare market. The following are three areas healthcare companies and voice developers should focus attention on to create better experiences and provide more utility for patients at home.

There is optimism around the ability for these devices to provide valuable services as HIPPA compliance comes into being alongside advances in assistant capabilities and device hardware.

Assisting Adherence

One of the most complex and costly issues in home healthcare today is adherence. Ensuring patients at home are able to stay on top of their medical routines is one aspect of this issue, but perhaps more important is the ability for technology to enable their routines and support them when issues arise. One assistant tackling this issue head-on today is Pillo.

While this assistant isn’t purely voice (it includes a screen for calls and other touch-based applications), it makes use of voice as an identification gateway and proactive reminder mechanic alerting users when it’s time to take their medication. In addition to this, the robot assistant actually holds and dispenses the users medications. Lastly, the device is able to speak to users armed with credible information regarding their condition(s) and medication side effects.

Pillo is a custom-created device from a private company, but the broader tech landscape of voice device providers could learn a lot from its feature set. The ability to proactively keep track of user’s schedules and the “vetted” information distribution are key to supporting patients with adherence issues and something future application builds in this space should account for, even at a basic level.

Where the adherence space is headed for voice devices likely looks more like the LifePod device (currently available for pre-order) than not. LifePod allows caregivers, children and other guardians of older patients to program the voice application to proactively interrupt throughout the day with custom scripts. This functionality includes collecting information on moods and pain as well as alerting them it’s time to take medication. While this device is a big step towards supporting patient’s aging in place, there are some features that can’t currently be applied to mainstream smart speaker devices. Notably, the LifePod experience relies on the ability to program proactive interruptions as opposed to the current smart speaker behavior developing of ‘summoning’ smart assistants via wake words.

Going forward, to succeed in this space, voice technology developers on mainstream platforms will need to consider allowing proactive audio alerts or think about how to embed adherence reminders and user confirmation scripts into existing experiences. Additionally, using voice experiences as a data channel that is connected to other sources like a caregiver’s mobile phone (via text or companion app) will be critical for progress. As patient’s use the devices, data should be sent to caregivers alerting them of their patient’s status or the need for action. If voice-enabled devices can achieve the ability to both proactively support adherence and reactively report information to caregivers while they’re away, the aging-in-place experience will be meaningfully enhanced.

Emergency Utility Services

Another area voice developers in healthcare should keep an eye on is support during critical moments. If an unforeseen situation or reaction occurs with a patient and other devices are out of reach or a caregiver is left in charge, smart speakers and assistant-enabled devices need to become a go-to outlet to facilitate help. One such use of the technology has been created by Carolinas HealthCare. Their Alexa-based application allows users to contact urgent care, provide directions to the nearest facility, share wait times and even reserve a spot on the practitioners’ queue.

Think of the value these capabilities provide in a moment of need. For the patients, voice is a natural communication interface that isn’t impeded by the loss of physical ability. If a user has fallen and other devices (panic button, etc.) are not nearby, smart speakers should be available to turn to. On the caregiver side of things, the ability to interface with voice-enabled devices (ideally pre-loaded with patient information) puts them ahead of the game to take action in a crisis. In addition to saving time, these capabilities could allow caregivers and home aides the ability to multi-task (i.e. helping the patient in the home or guiding them out of the home) while conversing with an assistant to get the process of help underway. This application is an example of these devices providing actionable services to help patients when a serious incident strikes. This kind of service should be baked into most healthcare voice applications going forward and, as HIPPA compliance solidifies, additional opportunities such as patient record access, physician contact and adverse side effect protocols must be considered to ensure users are fully covered in moments of need.

If voice-enabled devices can achieve the ability to both proactively support adherence and reactively report information to caregivers while they’re away, the aging-in-place experience will be meaningfully enhanced.

Providing a Bridge to Experts

As mentioned earlier in this piece, one of the major challenges for voice assistant’s today is providing users with proper diagnoses. Instead of creating poor user experiences that include a lengthy questioning process and leave users with unhelpful generic advice, these applications should be striving to create a path from users to experts who can help. IPsoft’s Amelia tool for providers has taken steps in this direction, but there is still room to expand. Imagine an experience that doesn’t pretend to know the answers, but is pre-loaded with specific (anonymized) data from other patient cases or could collect enough information from a user and then properly brief an expert and connect the two. This would provide a helpful and relevant antidote to the current model of deferring to generalized information collected and curated from public web sources.

A few players that have taken steps to address this challenge include England’s National Health Service (NHS) Alexa skill and HealthTap’s Dr. AI tool. Both rely on their internal expertise to increase the relevance of answers for users seeking diagnoses. Where I hope these companies and future developers will shift their focus is in identifying the point at which a hand-off to a human practitioner would be valuable. As these devices and assistants grow in capability (screen additions, personal data access, etc.) there will be a variety of data points users could generate without assistance from a physician which could then be easily transmitted prior to a consult. Depending on the practitioner’s policy, one could even imagine these experiences connecting them directly to patient’s (when available) via video functionality such as Alexa’s Drop-In Video call capability. This could save a tremendous amount of time for both parties and give new meaning to doctors making ‘house calls.’

As technology continues to play an increasing role in our everyday health and wellness, healthcare and at-home treatment will continue to be a focus for voice assistants. There is optimism around the ability for these devices to provide valuable services as HIPPA compliance comes into being alongside advances in assistant capabilities and device hardware. However, without a focus on personal relevance, true utility and reliable expertise these experiences will fall short of what they must do. The foundation has been set, it’s up to future experiences and voice-first developers to realize this potential and show us the way forward in this space.