Humanizing healthcare with technology

April 24, 2013
Using technology to humanize healthcare seems fairly counterintuitive. Ostensibly, adding a mobile device to the equation could drive a wedge between a physician and the patient, making the encounter less personal for both parties. However, recent accounts from both physicians and patients have shown that the presence of a mobile device such as an iPhone or iPad in an exam room, rather than a computer screen, has actually broken down barriers, allowing patients to take a more active role in the generation of their own electronic health record (EHR). As the healthcare industry looks for ways to improve the quality of patient care while also reducing costs, today’s providers are looking to these types of mobile technologies to improve engagement and streamline processes and procedures for patients and physicians alike.

Physician hesitancy

It’s no secret that many physicians are still hesitant to embrace certain technologies at the point of care. According to a recent survey conducted by the American College of Physicians and American EHR Partners, overall physician satisfaction with EHRs has decreased 12 percent from 2010 to 2012. At the same time, our healthcare system is quickly becoming even more tech-centric, and it has become readily apparent that physicians have to get on board or get left behind. Particularly with government mandates such as ICD-10 and meaningful use, it has become imperative for clinicians to embrace technology in order to maintain regulatory compliance. The inability to use and interact with technology not only places some physicians behind the curve, but sets them up for potential disaster down the road.

So how can physicians learn to adopt these technologies to adjust to the ever-changing healthcare landscape? The solution lies in virtual assistants. Similar to Siri on an iPhone, virtual assistants for healthcare are designed to act as an extra set of hands for today’s physicians through the use of speech and clinical language understanding (CLU). Just as a personal mobile assistant can pull up the weather, make dinner reservations and find directions through the use of voice, virtual assistants for healthcare have the ability to dig for information within a patient’s medical record, navigate healthcare applications and facilitate end-to-end clinical documentation, all through conversational dialogue and commands. Designed to ease complications affiliated with standard healthcare technology, these intelligent systems provide human-like interaction that helps physicians do their jobs more efficiently while also improving patient engagement.

The doctor will see you now

Virtual assistants allow for physicians to navigate the EHR and clinical documentation process fluidly using natural, interactive dialogue, enabling them to engage patients without distraction. Using CLU technology, virtual assistants capture patient data and analyze it, automatically populating the patient’s medical record and prompting the physician to provide further details when necessary. This allows physicians to direct their attention to their patient’s individual needs, rather than a computer screen, which helps humanize the interaction and facilitates a more in-depth, natural dialogue. This natural dialogue also provides patients with the opportunity to make additional comments or correct any inaccuracies in their own record.

Dr. Robert Walker, chief of executive medicine for the United States Army Europe in Heidelberg, Germany, has found this dialogue particularly instrumental in accurately capturing unique details for each of his patients. His patients are able to correct any inaccuracies as they are dictated into the EHR, giving them a sense of ownership of their individual medical record. In the past, seemingly small yet often significant details may have been inadvertently overlooked; but with the ability to see and hear their own EHR data, patients can now validate the information. The end result is more accurate, complete clinical documentation, which helps to ensure that the patient receives quality, appropriate treatment at the point of care.

These intelligent systems help to preserve physicians’ existing workflow by allowing them to engage with patients in a normal, natural fashion, while simultaneously decreasing the time spent on administrative, non-direct care duties – a critical concern for many physicians. A recent survey of physicians conducted by Nuance Healthcare found that one out of three physicians spends 30 percent or more of their day on administrative tasks, with 79 percent of clinicians spending more than 15 percent of their day on such activities. Virtual assistants help handle these tasks, reserving physician time for patient care.

Here’s an example of Florence, a virtual assistant designed for healthcare, helping streamline ordering of medications through intelligent dialogue. Not only does Florence recognize physician dialogue, but the technology understands the intent of commands. This allows physicians to prescribe medications, place lab orders and request diagnostic procedures via a natural language interface.

Beyond the exam room

Virtual assistants have the potential to add value in other aspects of patient care, providing solutions to common medical issues for both patients and their providers beyond the exam room. Virtual assistants can assist with the coordination of patient care among multiple caregivers by facilitating immediate access to all details in a patient’s record, regardless of where the patient was seen last. This allows the referring physicians and caregivers to deliver safe, effective treatment to patients with even the most complex backgrounds.

Perhaps now more than ever, patients are focused on being their own health advocates and are seeking ways to leverage technology to take a more active role in their own care. With virtual co-presence becoming commonplace in daily life, patients are expecting and pushing for virtual physician access outside the care setting.

Roy Lilley, independent health policy analyst, writer, broadcaster and commentator on health and social issues, explains this frustration in a recent blog post: “My mother is 93 years old and has an iPad. She wants to know why she can’t FaceTime the practice nurse. So do I.”

Integrating virtual assistants into mobile technologies grants patients access to quality care, even when they are outside of their physician’s office. These technologies also have the ability to tackle recurring issues, such as medication adherence and patient compliance. A recent Mayo Clinic study estimates that roughly 50 percent of patients do not take their medicines as prescribed, leading to medication-related adverse events. Readmissions stemming from these medication-related adverse events, including non-adherence, can cost hospitals as much as $10 billion annually. Patient-facing virtual assistants have the potential to provide patients with regular reminders, dosage instructions and pertinent information about their prescriptions, potentially increasing medication adherence. Improved patient compliance leads to more effective treatment and simultaneously reduces the risk of readmissions, saving hospitals billions of dollars each year.

“Conversational technology and telemedicine are creating a space full of opportunity for doctors and patients to collaborate over real-time data,” says Ivana Schnur, M.D., Ph.D., co-founder of, an organization that develops products designed to engage patients through natural sensory interactions, such as speech and gesture. “Supplemented by proven clinical protocols and motivational goals, the practice of medicine will shift its focus from reactive care to prevention, wellness and compliance, yielding a more patient-centered and cost-efficient system.”

By reinventing the way physicians and patients interact with technology, virtual assistants are drastically altering the overall healthcare experience. With the power to understand natural dialogue and process massive amounts of data, virtual assistants are putting the “care” back in healthcare. As these intelligent systems become ubiquitous, developers are quickly identifying ways to tackle even more complex issues, such as cost containment, erroneous billing and readmission rates. Can we take the complexity out of the system and begin to humanize healthcare? The answer is “yes.” Intelligent virtual assistants can help us navigate the complexity and focus on what’s important: quality, efficient patient care.

About the Author

Jonathon Dreyer is a mobile expert for Nuance. For more on Nuance: 

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