Hands-free devices in Healthcare
Jun 16, 2020

Hands-Free Devices Protect Healthcare Workers and Improve Care

The recent health and economic crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic is fueling the demand for safer, more efficient healthcare solutions. While the benefits of newer technologies, including artificial intelligence, are already widely known, the applications for AI in healthcare have been slowed due to HiPPA regulations and the need for patient privacy and fears around malpractice lawsuits. Even so, the opportunity for voice AI in healthcare is projected to grow to  $3.5 billion globally by 2025—due in part to the growing acceptance of voice assistants in every aspect of our lives and in part by the urgent need to protect healthcare workers and improve patient care. 

Voice AI in healthcare is projected to grow to  $3.5 billion globally by 2025

Arguably, there is a pressing need to reduce the workload on physicians by providing voice-enabled transcription, AI-driven diagnosis, patient care recommendations, and instant access to patient records. However, there are other applications and opportunities for voice assistants throughout hospitals and patient rooms that don’t require a central AI or access to patient records, and do not include data collection of any kind.

Given the projected market for voice AI in healthcare over the next five years, and the growing need for improved patient care and better health outcomes, we’ve identified three key areas for adding voice AI to healthcare:

  1. Embedded voice AI in medical devices
  2. Voice AI for smart hospital rooms
  3. Voice-enabled hospital buildings

Embedded voice AI in medical devices

Creating a hands-free environment for healthcare providers solves a multitude of challenges and increases efficiency and speed of care. By adding voice AI to the equipment and environment, surgeons, nurses, and other practitioners can focus on providing care and services hands-free—thereby improving patient experiences and positive outcomes.

In the operating room, a voice assistant can help surgeons keep their hands and eyes on the patient. Since the surgeon is already accustomed to addressing his staff with voice commands during a procedure, adding voice-enabled technical devices into this environment is a logical next step. The hands-free modality of a voice user interface removes a level of mechanical manipulation and the need for familiarity with the buttons and knobs of each device.

In the operating room, a voice assistant can help surgeons keep their hands and eyes on the patient. 

Providing each device with a unique wake word makes the interaction even more precise and cognitively similar to talking to individual staff members inside the operating room, asking each to perform specific tasks according to their role. Operating technical equipment with voice commands frees up not only the surgeon, but other practitioners in the room to focus on patient care. 

Operations as simple as brightening the light, tilting the table, and adjusting suction and irrigation devices can be initiated faster and without the need to use their hands. To avoid the need to set medical equipment to an individual surgeon’s preferences prior to a procedure, devices can be pre-set for a surgeon’s preferences through speaker ID technologies.

In other applications, doctors can verbally trigger photos to be taken during procedures, such as colonoscopies and label them as they continue the exam. Sensitive devices such as X-rays, MRI machines, CT scanners, and other medical equipment can be operated remotely without requiring the presence of a medical professional in the same room. Portable or hand-held devices can be operated with voice technology, keeping one hand free for other tasks and further reducing the transfer of germs from one patient to the next.

Voice tech in the hospital environment

Hospitals and diagnostic rooms are often noisy places. MRIs give off loud, thumping noises, while other machines whir, hum, and beep constantly in the background. The application for voice-enabled devices in this environment requires the sophistication of voice technology that ensures that voice commands can be heard accurately in noisy environments. In addition, practitioners must feel confident that the device will not “wake up” on its own or allow unauthorized access.

Technological advancements in voice AI have developed technologies that directly address each of these concerns and make embedded voice devices a viable solution:

  • Beam Forming 
  • Echo Cancellation and Noise Reduction (ECNR)
  • Custom Wake Words
  • Speaker ID

The combination of Bean Forming and ECNR  technologies helps to focus the voice assistant on the intended speaker–eliminating false positive triggers—while ignoring a range of background noises at varying distances. Voice technology that doesn’t include these critical features is not well-suited for the hospital environment where inadvertent starting or stopping of devices can have disastrous effects.

Custom Wake Words help to avoid confusion and error in a control room or operating room environment by giving each device its own signal to “wake up” and start operating. Wake phrases, such as “Hey, X-Ray” and “OK CT” make it easy for technicians to communicate to the intended device.

To ensure safety and avoid unauthorized access to equipment, Speaker ID—a technology that is similar to fingerprint recognition involving voice identification—allows devices to recognize a unique user and only respond to voice commands from that person. At the end of the shift, the device can be reset to the next technician or healthcare worker. 

Smart hospital rooms

By 2023, 8 billion digital voice assistants will be in use worldwide, nearly doubling current usage—according to Statista Research. The adoption rate is growing with mature audiences who find interacting with devices via their voice is easier than typing and swiping—activities that require good sight and dexterity. These trends indicate that the implementation of smart hospital rooms can help individuals who may not have access or proximity to various devices to better control their own environments, without asking for assistance from already overburdened nurses and nursing aides. 

By 2023, 8 billion digital voice assistants will be in use worldwide.

Voice user interfaces also help to control the spread of disease in hospitals by providing touchless interactions with commonly used control pads and remotes. Some obvious applications for voice-enabled devices in the hospital room, include:

  • TV controls
  • Access to music and entertainment
  • Environmental controls such as lights, air conditioning, and curtains
  • Bed adjustments
  • Nurse call buttons

In addition to providing more convenience for the patient, voice-embedded devices can improve safety. Nurse call buttons, often difficult to find in the dark or when a patient is in distress, can be replaced by voice-activated nursing station requests that immediately communicate the severity of the call being placed and allow nurses to prioritize routine calls from health emergencies.

To further free nurses to do the work of caring for patients who need them, a voice assistant in-room can answer questions about lunch, take orders for food and drink, deliver visitor information and visiting hour policies. The VUI could also place calls to the outside and provide information about the weather and local news. 

To further free nurses to do the work of caring for patients who need them, a voice assistant in-room can answer questions about lunch, take orders for food and drink, deliver visitor information and visiting hour policies.

It’s important to consider the necessity for a multilingual voice assistant that can speak the most common languages used in the community where the hospital resides. 

Outside of the hospital room, voice interfaces can act as way finders, helping people to locate the various departments and rooms within the building. Other applications within the hospital building may be voice-activated elevators or voice interfaces that can run machine diagnostics on complicated medical equipment.

A market that’s ready for voice technology

No matter the application, the need for safer, healthier, and more efficient healthcare environments in combination with the projected growth of voice AI in healthcare has opened up a market that’s ready for advanced, independent voice user interfaces, and an opportunity for manufacturers of medical devices for hospital use.

Voice-enabled medical devices and hospital equipment create hygienic, touchless, and convenient solutions for a multitude of healthcare challenges. Using a voice user interface that is entirely embedded—with the ability to receive updates through the cloud—reduces the concerns over privacy as it doesn’t store any patient data. 

The Houndify Voice AI platform with advanced natural language understanding, customized wake words, environmental filters, and the ability to add more functionality over time is well-suited to the healthcare environment where accuracy and responsiveness are key factors to positive outcomes.

If you’re interested in exploring the Houndify voice AI platform further, visit Houndify.com to learn more and register for a free trial account.

Karen Scates is a storyteller with a passion for helping others through content. Argentine tango, good books and great wine round out Karen’s interests.

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