Why 2018 is the year of voice tech in healthcare

What IT shops and clinicians should expect in 2019: plenty of tech failures.
By Tom Sullivan
12:43 PM
Voice assistant.

BOSTON — Voice technologies from Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and others are catching on in people's daily lives and that's starting to happen in healthcare as well.


"2018 is the year of the voice tech pilot," said Sara Holoubek, CEO of Luminary Labs, speaking at the Boston Children's Voice.Health Summit at the Connected Health Conference here. "We're in this extensive period of trial and error."

Why now?

Comparing the underpinnings of today's voice technology to Apple's original iPhone – which came to market three decades after many voice patents had been filed because the tech and price point had to coalesce – Klick CEO Leerom Segal said deep learning, natural language processing and parallel processing in the cloud have reached economies of scale such that voice devices are now sub-$100.


"Voice is already the primary interface that people use experiencing healthcare," Segal said. That's voice as in doctors talking to nurses and patients, family members and each other, rather than voice-based technologies.

UPMC Enterprises Executive Vice President Dr. Shivdev Rao said 75 to 80 percent of the signal in a hospital is voice-driven.

"Can we capture it? Can we do a better job of releasing friction?" Rao asked. He added that at UPMC, capturing metadata of a patient's history could help clinicians understand when someone is coming in with chest pain caused by acid reflux rather than a heart attack.


Segal said tech titans such as Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft are all aggressively fighting over voice because it fits their business models, promises more content and context, creates convenience and delivers an intimate experience to users.

"Healthcare is at a tipping point with voice," said John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children's. "We haven't seen it transform any industries. Healthcare could be a leading vertical in voice apps."

Brownstein said that voice could play a role in the entire patient journey beginning with voice interactions in the home or chatbots at triage, to cite just two examples.

But hospitals and tech developers should also anticipate and plan for some stumbling as proofs-of-concept fizzle out and pilot programs fail to make it into production.

UPMC's Rao said that today's IT infrastructure is "a huge mess" that needs to be cleaned up instead of trying to cover it up with new voice technologies.

"I think there are going to be a lot of flameouts in healthcare," said Peter Durlach, senior vice president of healthcare at Nuance Communications. "People are throwing a lot of money at it, but this is not an easy problem."

Indeed, just as Holoubek declared 2018 the year of pilot testing she also shared a prediction about next year.

"2019," Holoubek said, "will be the year of bad voice tech experiences."

Twitter: SullyHIT
Email the writer: tom.sullivan@himssmedia.com

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