Alexa, Is My Doctor Available Tomorrow? Trends on How Voice Search Will Change Patient Access
With the rapid rate of adoption of smart speakers, including Google Home and Alexa, and voice-activated search utilities like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Google Assistant and Samsung’s Bixby, voice-enabled search is poised to become the most popular way we search the internet. It’s also creating a new, intuitive way to support our healthcare needs. Just how thoroughly have voice-initiated queries penetrated the world of search? These statistics illuminate the picture:
It’s widely stated that 50% of all searches will be conducted by voice by this year. Although that prediction may have gotten somewhat inflated in its appearance in many articles, it’s clear that voice search is expanding at a dramatic pace, on its way to becoming an ever-more-indispensable feature of modern life.
A recent article at Digital Commerce 360 cites a Nielsen survey that indicates some 25% of US households have a smart speaker.
Voice Search Increasingly Becoming Part of Daily Life
Smart speakers and smart phone-based voice assistants are quickly moving from popular to indispensable, as these numbers reinforce:
- 72% of people who own voice-activated speakers say that their devices are used as part of their daily routines, according to Google.
- 65% of people who own an Amazon Echo or Google Home can’t imagine to going back to the days before they had a smart speaker, reports GeoMarketing
Voice Searchers are Asking About Health and Medicine
In a consumer survey by the marketing and research agency Zion&Zion, about 24% of smart phone/speaker users used voice search for health-related queries. Here are more findings:
- 65% of the voice searches were related to symptoms or treatments of an ailment, disease or other health condition, with searches for a doctor or specialist and searches for healthcare facilities in second and third places
- Symptoms and treatments were the most common topic in all age groups surveyed
- The largest age segment using voice search was the 30-44 range at 32%, with 18-29 and 45-59 close behind, and the 60+ cohort at 15%
- Of the 76% who reported no voice searches in the previous six months, about a quarter didn’t need any information, and about the same proportion prefers to type their query and read results
Alexa Becoming the New Patient Engagement Tool
Patients served by New York state’s Northwell Health can ask Alexa for emergency department wait times by zip code or their current location, and hospitals in Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center can use an in-room Echo Dot to summon nursing assistance or request information on their dietary restrictions. This kind of exchange doesn’t cross the HIPAA threshold for Protected Health Information, but compliant applications are on the way.
Amazon provides a HIPAA-eligible environment for select developers. This is invitation-only at present, but the company anticipates adding more as time goes on. This past April, the company announced the release of six Alexa Skills that connect patients and providers – with HIPAA controls built in:
- Express Scripts members can check the status of home delivery prescriptions and get an alert from Alexa when an order is shipped.
- Cigna’s Health Today service allows covered employees of client companies to manage personal health improvement goals and increase opportunities to earn personalized wellness incentives via Alexa.
- Boston Children’s Hospital helps parents connect via Alexa to the Enhanced Recovery After Surgery (ERAS) program to communicate with their child’s care team and coordinate post-surgery appointments.
- Livongo, which provides services for people with chronic health conditions, offers access to personal health reminders, and access to blood sugar readings with the command, “Alexa, ask Livongo for my last blood sugar reading.”
Google Home and Assistant and HIPAA
According to an article in HIPAA Journal (March 2019), Google’s voice products are a bit behind the privacy curve: ” . . . currently neither Google Home nor Google Assistant are covered by its BAA. Until such time that Google confirms that its voice assistant meets the requirements of HIPAA and includes devices and the voice technology that power them into its BAA, neither Google Home nor Google Assistant are HIPAA compliant and should not be used in a healthcare setting.”
Google is likely to catch up, though, as evident in its Verily venture with Sanofi and Walgreens. Called Onduo, this service will offer a “virtual diabetes clinic,” to help people with diabetes manage their condition with supplies and coaching.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has published guidelines for mobile devices that access PHI from the cloud. Still, it’s not certain when voice assistants for smart speakers and phones will be discreet enough to avoid asking a question that exposes your personal health details in a public setting.