• June 19, 2019
  • By Shara Cohen Vice President of Customer Experience,Clinical Effectiveness, Wolters Kluwer, Health.
  • Industry Voices

Humanizing Voice Technology to Connect with Patients

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Now more than ever, people have become savvier healthcare consumers and are seeking personalized care to improve their health and recovery after a procedure. This could include tracking their health with wearables or opening their home to devices that remind them to take medications and adhere to care plans. These personalized health tools and educational materials can help patients transition through life stages, disease states, and health status.

Throughout the care continuum, healthcare providers are challenged to keep patients engaged, on-track and, ultimately, healthy. It turns out the doctor’s office, clinic, or hospital is not the ideal place to listen to care plan instructions, as patients and caregivers can feel stressed and overwhelmed. This highlights the need to reach patients outside traditional settings. Enter voice user interface (VUI) design. VUI is already being leveraged across the patient journey to educate and keep them healthy. From pre-procedure to post-discharge, VUI is helping care teams support patients every step of the way, including during their most vulnerable moments, physically and mentally. Additionally, this technology is helping loved ones and caregivers, since it is often difficult to remember every detail of a care plan to stay on track for recovery.

VUI is unique in that it uses a personalized, human-centered design delivered via technology, not a generic robotic voice that does not express emotion or empathy. For instance, after a medical procedure, phone calls are made to check on patients post-discharge. Patients are prompted to respond, and Natural Language Processing enables bi-directional conversations between the technology and patient. VUI feeds the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to ask thoughtful, relevant questions, to reinforce positive behaviors and report back to care management teams (i.e., nurses and doctors) about the patient’s health status and risks.

So how is VUI helping perform this job? For patient outreach to be effective, it needs to be done on a population-wide scale, which is impractical with limited clinical, nursing or care management staff. VUI technology enables care teams to dramatically scale their outreach efforts. Instead of pulling nurses off the hospital floor to make calls to patients post-discharge, VUI can do it for them. In addition, when nurses call patients, they are only reaching one patient at a time, which is a tedious and inefficient use of their clinical skills and knowledge.

To better understand how VUI enables care teams to extend their outreach, our team implemented a pilot study with four hospitals focused on patients with congestive heart failure (CHF). 120 patients were enrolled in a six-week call program after discharge. We found that patients engaged with the calls an average of 18 times over that period, but it took nearly 10,000 phone call attempts to reach those 120 patients. Nursing teams simply would not have been able to make the number of calls necessary to get that level of patient feedback and response. VUI technology enables care teams to do what they do best – care for patients.

Finding Empathy in Tech

One thing VUI can offer is empathy and emotional connection. Technology-based communication can be very effective for a topic of conversation that could potentially be embarrassing for patients to discuss. People are more comfortable sharing information with an automated system simply because it isn’t going to judge them. This could pertain to critical information impacting a patient’s recovery or condition management, including sensitive areas such as depression, medication adherence, financial situations, and more.

Our team discovered this in another real-world example. In one of our programs, we focused on patients with diabetes, offering support to cope with a new diagnosis or ongoing management challenge. Most enrollees self-reported that depression had interfered with their ability to manage their condition. But, 83% of them also said they had not discussed these issues with a healthcare professional. Further, over half of these individuals had opted-in to receive additional phone calls that were specifically designed to offer emotional support. In the end, more than three-fourths reported decreased depression scores over the course of their interactions. The empathetic approach in these calls made the difference, helping these patients share their struggles and ultimately, get the appropriate care.

Technology is increasingly fostering emotional connections with patients. But to do so, interactions must be seamless and mimic a real human conversation. We cannot forget the fact that, in the end, we are asking patients to engage with a machine as if it were a real person. Yes, the technology is developed by humans and recorded by a real human voice, but we also need the technology to dialogue like humans do. For example, the machine needs to anticipate how humans will react and respond accordingly. VUI is successful when it’s well-designed and empathetic up front, able to pivot as needed, anticipating and reacting to responses just as a friend would if you shared something with them. That idea is critical and one that voice user experience designers are challenged with every day.

Another, more dramatic example of the power of empathy in voice technology, happened during one of these routine follow-up calls. During a call back to a patient after a general discharge, the interactive technology gave patients the option to indicate if they were feeling sad, hopeless, or depressed. If so, a clinical social worker would call them directly. In one case, a patient did indicate those feelings, and when the clinician called to check on him, the patient expressed he was suicidal and holding a gun. Fortunately, the clinician knew exactly what to do and called 911, while staying on the phone with the patient. VUI technology assisted in saving a life that day. Because the patient was comfortable disclosing those feelings, a clinician followed up with him, which may not have been possible without VUI.

Mental health issues are far-reaching and often require multiple approaches. That could mean the technology needs to analyze the responses of thousands of patients – and find the ones that might need extra support, like in the previous example. But these VUI calls are able to identify patients who might be suffering from depression or who are concerned about their mental health.  

VUI-designed calls give healthcare providers a chance to check in with patients and their caregivers using the most natural, familiar technology there is: the telephone and the human voice. The more human the experience the better the results.

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