Will Mobile 'Virtual Assistants' Propel the Future of Medicine?

The future of a quality, efficient health care system rests in our ability to press industry players to embrace collaboration and push for the creation of a connected ecosystem where, from patient to payer, mHealth technology acts as the ember to spark ongoing innovation.
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The future of a quality, efficient health care system rests in our ability to press industry players to embrace collaboration and push for the creation of a connected ecosystem where, from patient to payer, mHealth technology acts as the ember to spark ongoing innovation. Today we, as consumers, have grown accustomed to experiencing the power of mobile technology. As mobile technology has evolved, it's begun to take on an increasingly intuitive role in the form of televisions, laptops and cars that listen and now understand what we're asking for and what we, as individuals, need at a particular point in time.

With this evolution of mobility in mind, I've been thinking a lot about what a mobile "virtual assistant" could mean for clinicians. In today's health care setting, far too much clinician time is spent on administrative tasks that, while important, pales in comparison to the significance of their main job duty -- ensuring the health and well-being of actual people. But what if we could help clinicians tackle administrative and other day-to-day duties by enlisting the power of a fleet of mobile virtual assistants that: help clinicians simplify interactions and address data-entry headaches with electronic health records (EHRs); provide real-time insight on the next patient, including vital signs and medications; or even prompt them for more information when the record does not contain the level of detail needed to ensure first-rate care?

The everyday consumer understands the power of a mobile virtual assistant. Our recent consumer-focused survey actually found that more than 60 percent of respondents are interested in using a virtual assistant on their phone, and of those who are currently using mobile virtual assistants, more than 80 percent find them useful. To simply pick up your smartphone and ask it to move a meeting, present local movie times, call your mother, or set a reminder to send your car payment -- all of these actions provided by a mobile virtual assistant -- just makes life easier.

Building off these consumer findings, Nuance recently conducted a similar survey with physicians. The survey, Nuance's 2013 Virtual Assistants in Healthcare Survey, found 79 percent of clinicians surveyed spend more than 15 percent of their day on administrative, non-direct care duties. Moreover, one out of three spends 30 percent or more of their day on these activities -- time that could be better spent and redirected or removed using voice-enabled virtual assistants. The survey provided additional insight on the potential virtual assistants hold for health care.

As the health care community looks for ways to modernize health care and improve patient care and engagement, mobile technology will increasingly take center stage. While I won't go as far as Vinod Khosla and say that technology will eventually replace 80 percent of doctors, I will say this: The health care system and the manner by which we provide patient care today is broken, and technology can help reconfigure the pieces back together to create a more efficient, patient-centric system.

How will virtual assistants put the care back in health care?

When doctors think about virtual assistants in the world of health information technology, they are looking for something to make their job easier and let them concentrate on the things their education and training prepared them for rather than replacing or minimizing the patient-provider experience. For instance, imagine a scenario where your doctor is actually able to engage with you, the patient, without being burdened with inputting details into a computer or fiddling with a mouse. Instead, the doctor would talk with you, and all the while, a virtual assistant would easily capture the information you are communicating with each other, analyze it, and based on criteria, assist your doctor by prompting her for more information that enables her to provide you with the proper care.

According to our recent survey, doctors believe that mobile virtual assistants could impact health care most by helping them access information in EHRs, and navigate through the process using conversational commands:

  • 65 percent say the top role for a virtual assistant: more accurate, timely information to support care or alert them to missing information in records.
  • 73 percent expect virtual assistants could improve health care and patient engagement by helping to coordinate care between multiple caregivers.
  • 80 percent believe virtual assistants will benefit patients most by engaging them in the process, prompting them to adhere to health advice and modifying behaviors.

Here's an example of Florence -- a virtual assistant designed for health care -- helping streamline ordering of medications through intelligent dialogue:

We are on the cusp of being able to deliver the highest levels of health care and mHealth with virtual assistants paving the way toward replacing deep-seeded issues that continue to infuse complexity into health care. To advance the entire health care ecosystem, I believe we need to do three key things:

  1. Identify ways to streamline communication and cooperation across involved parties.
  2. Leverage what we know works from consumers' use of mobile devices and apps and adapt these solutions to fit the health care realm.
  3. Create and adopt intelligent technologies that help reinvent outdated, unnecessary processes and approaches to patient care and clinician job duties.

Mobile virtual assistants accomplish these tasks by helping eradicate complexity and further humanizing health care. They will be the catalyst propelling the future of medicine.

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