How a voice assistant can be a constant companion for hospital-bound patients

Thomas Jefferson University Hospital will soon pilot a purpose-built smart speaker.
By Jonah Comstock
02:06 pm

The top two questions nurses at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital field from bedridden patients are “When is my lunch coming?” and “When are visiting hours?” according to Viraj Patwardhan, the hospital’s VP of digital design and consumer experience.

“When you don’t have anything to do, you either think of food or you think of your loved ones,” he said.

At the Patient Engagement and Experience Summit at HIMSS19 in Orlando today, Patwardhan and Chief Digital Officer Neil Gomes presented their hospital’s attempt to help take questions like this off of nurses’ plates with the introduction of a smart speaker at the bedside that will act like a bespoke healthcare version of Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa.

“The goal of the smart speaker is that I have a companion in my room which will help me when I’m in the hospital,” Patwardhan said. “So I’m not always pushing the nurse call button, but I can ask basic questions to the speaker and it will start giving me information.”

In the program, which goes live in about a month in its first 20 rooms, patients can ask the aforementioned questions about lunch and visiting hours and get an answer from the smart assistant. They can also ask it to change the channel on their TV, alter the temperature of their room, tell them the time, date, and weather, and even Google random questions and read answers aloud.

The team originally looked into simply implementing existing voice assistants, but found that restrictions related to HIPAA made building their own a safer plan.

The intervention is aimed at patients with a three-or-more-day stay, and the goal is twofold: To improve patient experience and to free up doctors and nurses for more meaningful conversations with patients, about their care or simply about human connection.

“Any innovation you create, it has to be focused on the patient and the consumer, but it also has to make sense for the organization. There has to be a business model,” Gomes said. “Time saved by clinicians, good will generated — you have to look to see that those benefits are being generated.”

The simple questions the app can answer now are just the beginning. In the future, Gomes and Patwardhan hope that the speaker can proactively remind patients about therapy or medications, and even deliver surveys about the patient experience.

“Voice is one of the smallest learning curves for an OS,” Gomes said. “We’ve known that since the 1960s on Star Trek. That you could just speak and no one would have to learn anything.”


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