Bana Jobe

“Alexa, Can You Get My Nurse?”: A Look at Trends in Smart Hospitals

Health care technology is getting smarter by the day. Google can detect cancer. Robots can perform surgery. And in the latest medical marvel, Amazon’s Alexa has all but donned scrubs to assist patients straight from their hospital rooms.

At least, that’s the plan. A pilot program at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in California puts virtual assistant technology right at the bedside for voice-activated care delivery. The pilot, which the hospital announced earlier this year, has placed Alexa in more than 100 patient rooms throughout the hospital.

Enriching the Hospital Experience

The Cedars-Sinai assistant can do the things you might expect — like “Alexa, change the channel to HGTV” — but it goes well beyond entertainment and convenience. The device can also call a nurse for help or request more pain medication if a patient asks for it.

There’s also the social factor. If you happen to be lonely while in one of the hospital’s Alexa-equipped rooms, you’ll be accompanied by a kind and comforting — if notably disembodied — voice. After one patient’s abdominal surgery, she asked if Alexa would be her friend. “Of course,” the technology replied.

According to the hospital’s announcement, the pilot program is part of an ongoing effort to enrich patients’ experience by surrounding them with technology they may already know from home — both to make patients’ own lives easier (“Alexa, can you order lunch?”) and to boost operational efficiency (“Alexa, order an MRI, please.”)

Other Applications of Voice-Enabled Health Care

That operational piece is equally important, especially as more innovations in health care automate time-intensive functions like paperwork and patient charts. Voice recognition software such as Alexa, Siri, Cortana and Google Assistant plays an ever-growing role in that evolution.

And the world of health care is ripe with potential. For an industry that’s inherently audial — experts assume that speech makes up to 80 percent of a hospital’s operations — voice assistant technology makes sense on many levels, capturing the everyday conversations between care teams and dictated tasks that lead to better care overall.

Beyond the Cedars-Sinai pilot, other hospitals have used virtual assistant technology to improve electronic health records. One such program at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center searches through large volumes of data to find answers to verbal questions about patient records. Another from health tech company Sopris Health transcribes doctor-patient conversations as a logged record in the patient’s file.

Most importantly, these shortcuts mean that physicians can spend more time doing the important stuff, like speaking with patients and making medical decisions, without the administrative burden of data entry or other manual processes. And when you’re in a time crunch between multiple clinic visits in a single day, saving even a few minutes can make all the difference.

Better Care, Better Data, Better Benefits

If you’re wondering how all this might affect you as an employer, pay attention to the technology: The impact of voice assistants isn’t limited to faster and better clinical care delivery for yourself and your employees (though that doesn’t hurt). The same technology behind those advancements may also offer value on the billing side, for example, which could expedite claims for patient encounters and prescriptions. That can in turn lead to more accurate data to inform plan decisions and benefit usage analyses — and potentially even predict which features employees will (and won’t) need overall.

All of these innovations in health care help to automate processes where it makes sense to, like the nitty-gritty of coding, billing and charts, while keeping the more meaningful aspects of health care, like doctor-patient rapport, intact. Because while health care technology continues to evolve, some parts of it will always be a job only humans can do.

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