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Doctor! Doctor: How Smart-Speakers Are Already Impacting Health Care

Last week, US company Wellpepper were announced as the winners of the Alexa Diabetes Challenge; a competition to find the best use of Alexa technology in improving the lives of those with Type 2 Diabetes. Their “Sugar-Pod” support suite utilized various technology platforms (such as a digital foot scanner) but, its use of Voice as a way to increase engagement with the user was key in integrating the diabetes screening process into the users everyday routine.

The use of Voice-Activation in the health-care is in its infancy but for all the challenges it faces there are infinitely more possibilities. In the UK, as NHS budgets are squeezed, the option to replace some services and facilities with voice-activation and artificial intelligence becomes incredibly attractive. However, the ability to identify WHEN and WHERE its use is appropriate will be vital to its success.

Hampshire County Council is currently exploring the possibility of using Voice-Activated Technology to support vulnerable people in the area. A pilot programme will see fifty people across the county using an Amazon Alexa ‘Skill’ to remind them of certain, everyday activities such as taking medication and locking the front door. The council says it hopes that the programme will help its users achieve “greater independence”.

It’s not the most creative of uses for the Alexa platform (essentially building on the Alexa’s existing calendar utility) but it does demonstrate the benefits of such technology to individuals who may have issues with their sight or difficulties communicating in other fashions. Vulnerable people who have issues using other forms of technology can find interaction with voice-activated platforms as natural as, well, a conversation!

Smart Speakers have also made inroads in the mental-health world. Back in 2015, Amazon Developers spent time working with National Crisis Counselors in the US to build automated answers to simple mental-health related statements and questions. Saying “Alexa, I’m depressed” or “Alexa I want to commit suicide” will trigger a carefully researched and worded response that can offer advice or prompt the user into finding further help. Again, it’s early days for systems such as this and it’s easy to see how improvements can be made: Simply having the ability to connect to a crisis counselor via Alexa’s Voice Call functionality would be a great addition in my opinion whilst making the responses more “human” would potentially offer more solace to someone in need?

This type of use raises some interesting questions about who would use a Smart-Speaker for such questions? Potentially Alexa and its siblings could provide a “conversation” for those too embarrassed, scared or anxious to talk to a “real” person. Talking to a machine could be an easy, low-risk route to getting the help needed.

Projects like NHS Direct have sought to reduce pressures on front-line healthcare services and Voice Activated Technology could well provide the ideal solution. Not only does this technology have the potential to be the first point of contact to those who may otherwise not want to seek help (ie: Teenagers wanting advice on STI’s) but also could alleviate pressure on services with direct public contact. Patients could access simple, easy health advice, distinguish a common cold from a flu virus and even book a potential appointment with a GP all without talking to an ACTUAL person.

Whether patients are happy to discuss health issues with a machine remains to be seen and the question of when and where Voice Activation is appropriate will need to be answered but as the technology develops the economic and patient-experience benefits of Smart Speakers in Health Care will surely become clear.

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