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Alexa’s New Job: Leveraging AI for Patient Experience and Combatting Physician Burnout

August 20, 2019

“Hey, Siri, tell my next patient I’ll be in to see them in a few moments.”

“Alexa, make sure Joe Smith takes this antibiotic three times a day for ten days.”

“Google, what’s the recommended course of action for a patient presenting these symptoms?”

Give your smart device these commands today and you likely won’t get the results you’re looking for. Not because the technology isn’t capable, but because healthcare simply isn’t there—yet. Soon (and quite soon, not your great-grandchildren soon) the same help we’re beginning to rely on AI to provide in our daily lives will find itself in our hospitals. With patient experience and physician burnout remaining top-of-mind issues for the entire industry, leveraging pre-existing voice-activated AI to help caregivers could be the revolution healthcare needs to accommodate both the need for better data and the need for more human connection.

Artificial Intelligence Is Here to Stay

Strange as it may seem, from a technical perspective, it’s not very different to ask Alexa for a list of patient-reported symptoms as opposed to your shopping list. Natural language processing is the type of artificial intelligence which helps doctors transcribe and record their consultations with patients. This is the same technology that allows my Google assistant to read me my calendar every morning and then use only my voice to modify it as I see fit. If not for HIPPA laws, an Amazon Echo could easily transition from the home to the hospital today. But what does the introduction of artificial intelligence—particularly voice commands and conversation—do for the patient experience?

Healthcare is more consumer-driven than ever, consumers who are slowly becoming more accustomed to non-human conversations. In the last decade, AI has rapidly developed into a multi-billion-dollar industry. In healthcare alone, the AI market is expected to exceed $6.5 billion by 2021—that’s nearly one dollar for every man, woman, and child on the planet.

Of course, advancement always begs the question: just because we can, does that mean we should? It’s easy to see why many worry about robotic interference with healing, a very human experience. What does a machine know about the emotional complexities of getting over a broken hand, the dominant hand you rely on for just about everything? How can something made of nuts and bolts and 1s and 0s relate to the fear of waiting on test results? In the early 21st century, AI simply cannot relate to the flood of human emotions that accompany these scenarios (though maybe your great-grandchildren will experience empathetic robots).

But what artificially intelligent machines can do, better than almost anyone, is perform repetitive, careful tasks without bias and at a much lower error rate than a human. It can also take commands, transcribe relevant elements of conversation, and significantly reduce one of the greatest sources of physician burnout: paperwork. Statistically, a patient seen by a frustrated nurse or a burned-out doctor has a poorer experience than one who is not. By giving caregivers time to spend with patients away from their desks, we kill two birds with one robot as patients get more face time and physicians get less desk time.

Alleviating Burnout

The CDC reports that the average American sees a physician three times a year, for 20 minutes each. That’s a single cumulative hour of time spent annually with a medical professional. And the numbers are no less bleak in the inverse; one Stanford study reports that for every hour a physician spends with their patients, they spend another two completing administrative tasks. That means a physician working 60 hours a week only spends 20 hours with patients. The frustrations of life as both a desk jockey and a practicing physician have compounded into unprecedented rates of healthcare burnout. Doctors know they need more time with patients and more time improving the patient experience. But time isn’t freely given in this industry, not without help.

AI and machine learning offer physicians the help they need in getting crucial face time with patients. This helpfulness goes both ways, as for many patients, interactive voice apps teach better than handouts, pamphlets, and self-driven research on sites like WebMD. As a result, patients interacting with healthcare AI may begin to see lower readmittance rates than those relying on paper alone.

Careful Progress

Of course, implementing technology in the healthcare setting demands a commitment of both time and money, resources hospitals often find themselves missing. A voice app is only as powerful as the human interacting with it, and if caregivers or patients do not or cannot learn how to use the technology properly, the AI systems do more harm than good.

Further, hospitals need to have a high degree of confidence that the technology they implement is technically competent enough to capture accurate and complete data from the existing EHR while also interacting with the patient.

Of course, the AI cannot realistically respond to the patient’s mannerisms as they describe their symptoms. If a patient seems afraid, confused, agitated, or one of the hundreds of other emotions running through someone’s head during medical intake, it is never the responsibility of a machine to respond. Rather, it is the responsibility of the hospital to allow the AI to perform the technical recording that grants the caregiver time and resources to offer empathy, understanding, and clarity.

AI is no longer the future; it’s our present reality. By delegating notetaking, billing, and other administrative tasks to a competent artificial intelligence, hospital leaders solve a very old problem with a very innovative solution. Regardless of age or health status, ultimately, we’re all motivated by the relationships we have with each other. Allowing AI to supplement the provider-patient relationship by minimizing the impact of paperwork and freeing the physician to be fully present in precious time spent with patients can only benefit the healthcare experience. This AI adoption alleviates burnout and returns us to the heart of what makes healthcare robust—an empathetic healer helping their neighbor.

Sources and further reading:

Four ways adoption of AI is shaping the future of patient care

The Future of Voice AI in Patient Care