The Microsoft-Nuance Alliance: A Curative for Caregiver Conversations?

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Microsoft’s acquisition of Nuance Communications has fueled the business press and industry analysts’ vlogs and blogs nonstop since the announcement. Almost all the focus has been on what this means for Microsoft and almost nothing about what it means to end users of Nuance’s technology.

Microsoft’s history of acquisitions leaves plenty of room for speculation, hence the continuous chatter following the announcement. For the record, Microsoft’s press release was titled “Microsoft accelerates industry cloud strategy for healthcare with the acquisition of Nuance.” Until there is evidence otherwise, we will have to take Microsoft at its word.

The big question for many is “What’s in it for me?”—a tactical rather than strategic question.

One industry that will not be affected in the short term is the automotive industry, given that Nuance spun off its automotive division, Cerence, two years ago. Microsoft is working with Cerence and other automotive partners, so nothing changes. Other recent Nuance divestitures were small in market share and not strategic in nature.

Will it open the door for Nuance competitors such as LumenVox, NICE, Pindrop, Phonexia, and Verint? The change to its competitive stance is difficult to predict, but nothing major is likely to happen in the short term.

But what should change is the acceleration of Nuance’s service delivery from the cloud. Though Nuance has recognized the importance of cloud delivery and been striving to move to it, the effort took a major investment of human resources as well as significant funding as each of its core services made the shift. Nuance has offered Dragon Professional Anywhere and its offshoots from Azure for only a year. It has offered cloud IVR for seven years, but that product has been more in the mode of hosted IVR, which is less flexible than what will likely be offered from Azure.

Conversely, Microsoft has been working hard on improving its ability to deliver with Azure Cognitive Services. And though the solution offers a good bang for the buck, it still lags well behind what Nuance delivers through its natural language understanding offering. This acquisition could be like those 1970s Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials, where one flavor collides with the other to create a compelling candy.

A Potential Boon for Caregivers

An example of a real use case that will benefit from this new offering was developed eight years ago by Diane Rogers, president of Contagious Change. Contagious Change provides training and consulting to improve therapeutic relationships between healthcare professionals and patients. Rogers’s idea of capturing conversations between caregivers and patients and running them through speech analytics focused on the key questions and statements caregivers should always include in their interactions with patients. Speech analytics would provide the data to objectively produce feedback caregivers could use to self-calibrate their communications with patients.

The challenge at the time was to capture conversations, send them to the cloud recording application, and then push a calibration report to caregivers derived from speech analytics. First a proof of concept had to be created for a demo for several healthcare systems. But persuading speech recording and analytics vendors to step away from their conventional licensing model was like scaling Mount Everest.

The advent of Microsoft’s Azure Cognitive Services Speech to Text and Text Analytics four years later, in 2017, opened the door to consuming and paying for these services at a level that supports proof-of-concept development. In 2017, the first proof of concept easily could have been served by the speech-to-text in Azure, but follow-on requirements clearly required healthcare-focused speech tuning. And this is where the Nuance acquisition creates new opportunities for companies like Contagious Change to deliver speech technology-dependent services in the healthcare arena.

It appears that the answer to “What’s in it for me?” is that smaller and especially healthcare-focused firms like Rogers’s company will be able to compete and quickly deliver value instead of being blocked out due to the massive capital requirements that previously stood in their way. 

Kevin Brown is a customer experience architect. He has more than 25 years of experience designing and delivering speech-enabled solutions. He can be reached at kevin.brown@voxperitus.com.

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