Speech: The Solution for ‘What’ Ails You

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Both of my parents are getting up there in age, and so their hearing isn’t as sharp as it once was. Hearing loss has been a particular problem for my mother, who has—and keeps losing—hearing aids. My father, my siblings, and I have all gotten accustomed to hearing “What?” as part of any conversation with my mother.

Our conversations with my mom typically take place in the quiet confines of her living room, where the TV might be on as a source of aural competition but the background noise levels are usually relatively low.

After taking a bad fall and winding up in a nursing home for a few weeks of rehab, my mom’s hearing difficulties really became obvious. The noise of call buttons and other medical equipment coupled with the cacophony that comes from having many people in a confined space posed epic hearing challenges for my mom. She could have used a full-time aide to ensure she heard and understood what the doctors, nurses, and others involved in her care were saying.

Having a full-time assistant was, obviously, both a financial and logistical impossibility. Even if that wasn’t the case, having a third-party involved in a conversation between healthcare provider and patient would involve an ambulance-full of scrutiny as it relates to Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance and other privacy regulations.

Sue Reager’s “In Other Words” column does offer some hope, though. “Speech translation has a powerful contribution to make in every aspect of every medical facility,” she writes.

The benefits of speech, according to Reager, extend through every step of the medical process, from making appointments to receiving diagnoses and follow-up treatments. “There are solutions for each part of a doctor’s communication,” she adds.

Other examples of how speech technologies are playing out in the healthcare field can be seen in this month’s Market Spotlight. While dictating patient notes is the most common use case for speech technology among doctors and other healthcare practitioners, speech is becoming more pervasive across the entire healthcare vertical. Text-to-speech technology is giving a voice to those who can’t speak, while virtual assistants are there to remind patients to take their medications and inform providers of potential problems in real time. Speech-based analytics are even being used to diagnose some conditions, like potential learning disabilities in children and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers returning from combat, for example.

“As the technology gets more pervasive, expectations are high that it will contribute even further to improved healthcare,” the article notes.

Elsewhere in the article, Bill Rogers, CEO of Orbita—a provider of a software platform for creating and maintaining voice applications running on Amazon Alexa-enabled devices—says that as voice is poised to be the next big user interface, the healthcare sector could become its most important frontier.

That is particularly reassuring to me and my family as Mom and Dad move on through their golden years. Obviously, they would be happiest living at home rather than in an extended-care facility. They already have medical alert devices, which I guess could be considered speech-enabled devices in some limited sense, but it’s nice to know that the potential is there for so much more.

That gives me a sense of pride, even if it is only vicarious (I do consider myself part of the speech industry in some small way). I’m glad to see that speech solutions can translate into better medical care. While some technologies might need a few more years in development, at least some are ready to start making a difference now. With any luck, when my mom asks “What?” it doesn’t have to be followed by frustration from her and the people trying to communicate with her for too much longer.

Leonard Klie is the editor of Speech Technology magazine. He can be reached at lklie@infotoday.com.

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