Providing Digital Health Care With a Conversational Experience

Virtual voice-based assistants, such as Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, are becoming more common, transforming our houses into smart homes. “Alexa, wake me up at 7 a.m.” “Alexa, what’s the temperature outside?” About 30% of our interactions with technology are happening through conversation now.

The healthcare industry has also recognized the potential of voice-first health tech solutions. Voice-enabled technology can provide novel ways of interacting with patients, especially those who are at-risk in some way or live in remote areas. People are generally more engaged with technology when they can have a two-way conversation—as such, voice appears to be a powerful user interface. We are more likely to get involved and adopt new habits if we are given information in the form of a meaningful conversation.

Woman talking to her smart watch

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Supporting Evidence-Based Information With Voice

Orbita, Inc. is one of the companies working on applying conversational technologies to healthcare. It specializes in voice-first healthcare applications and looks for solutions to improve health outcomes. Its voice assistance technology is combined with artificial intelligence (AI) innovations and aims to improve remote patient monitoring, clinical education, care delivery, and research. Orbita has announced a new partnership with the Mayo Clinic. The Mayo Clinic is a trusted, go-to health source for many people. New technology like Orbita’s will enable the Mayo Clinic to expand beyond traditional digital channels and give voice to its content.

StayWell, a health company that is attempting to productize the science of behavioral change, has utilized Orbita’s technology. StayWell’s product, StayWell Voice, is an omnichannel application that helps users manage their weight and stress. It uses voice-first technology and advanced analytics and can be applied to Amazon Echo and different online chatbots.

Communication Style Gives Credibility

Researchers around the globe are continuously working on developing and improving intelligent virtual health advisory systems by adding humanoid characteristics. They are looking for optimal design strategies, particularly in relation to their programs’ communication styles.

One study, conducted by a research team from the Northeastern University in Liaoning, China, and Ren Min University in Beijing, showed that similarity in communication style (to the end-user) can increase a sense of credibility, thus making the user more likely to trust the virtual advisor. When a user is interacting with an avatar, the avatar’s communication style can influence the user’s engagement level and enjoyment. The authors of the research concluded that, for best results, the virtual advisor’s language should align with the vernacular of the user. The study found that when the digital health advisor is programmed to emulate the communication style of the user, it supports emotional rapport.

It is evident that when people enjoy their interactions with technology, they are more likely to use that technology again. In fact, according to recent studies, this aspect might be more important to users than the technology’s credibility and informativeness. Experts suggest that designers of virtual advisory systems in healthcare should investigate the communication patterns of local users before developing their system's communication style. By understanding the end-user first, developers can create language that supports end-user intimacy and acceptance.

A Conversational Voice Assistant for Seniors

It is particularly important to design easy-to-use, reliable interactive devices when it comes to seniors. LifePod is a voice-controlled virtual voice assistant based on Alexa. It combines internet-enabled sensors and AI. Built specifically for seniors, this innovation responds to voice and can support aging in place.

LifePod initiates dialogues based on its settings. Users and caregivers can configure the device’s menu according to their needs. For example, LifePod can remind you to brush your teeth, eat a meal, or keep a doctor’s appointment. It can also record one’s daily activity so that family members can follow their loved ones’ routines and physical condition remotely.

Moreover, LifePod acts as a companion. It can read audiobooks, play music, select news headlines, and even tell a joke. Importantly, LifePod also features an alert function that can be used in an emergency (e.g., if a person has a fall). There is no need to push a button or to wear a pendant; the user only needs to call for help and the device responds accordingly.

Are Interactive Chatbots the Future of Healthcare?

Chatbot technology is not as new as you might think. It has been around since the 1960s. Recently, it has been increasingly used in mental health, but also in other healthcare domains. A study led by Professor Gerhard Andersson of Linköping University, Sweden, showed good adherence rates in people using a smartphone-based automated chatbot called Shim for positive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy interventions.

Using Shim has shown to have a positive effect on the user’s psychological well-being and perceived stress. However, the study also revealed some limitations of an automated conversational agent; for example, the responses of the app’s agent often were repetitive.

Hospitals and healthcare systems are beginning to appreciate the input of virtual advisory services and the amount of data they can collect and dispense at scale with these systems. It is almost impossible for health providers to build a deep relationship with their clients and share all their health information efficiently using strictly human interaction.

Chatbots can, to some degree, fill this gap while still providing an individualized approach. Moreover, chatbots are economical to run (once built) and are generally available to answer questions whenever needed (as opposed to a staffing model that is expensive to run around the clock).

Although interactive technology and conversational artificial intelligence have their limitations—including safety concerns and the possibility of misunderstandings—the global chatbot market is expected to continue to develop, reaching $1.25 billion by 2025. Many consumers are accepting chatbots as their preferred mode of communication.

Continued development is required for interactive technology to meet all the needs and comply with the standards of healthcare. As the technology evolves, there are many possible functions and features of chatbots and virtual voice-based assistants that will likely be added in the years to come, making this type of health technology increasingly holistic and human-like.

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  2. Ly K, Ly A, Andersson G. A fully automated conversational agent for promoting mental well-being: A pilot RCT using mixed methods. Internet Interventions, 2017;10:39-46.

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