Health Tech Podcast

Can digital assistants make healthcare extra human? Startups create voice tech for medical doctors and sufferers

Ryan Plasch, vice president of growth and strategy at Saykara, and CEO Harjinder Sandhu. (GeekWire Photo)

Peek into a random hospital room in the U.S. today, and you might see something that makes you cynical about technology. The classic scene is of a provider talking with a patient as they face the opposite direction and take detailed notes on a computer.

In other words, the patient’s only face-time with their doctor is spent staring at the back of his or her neck.

Beyond the loss of human interaction, the long hours spent entering these notes at the end of the day have placed a well-documented burden on clinicians, leading to elevated rates of burnout, depression and suicide.

“The average clinician spends two to three hours at night, after hours doing mundane data entry work. We’ve turned physicians into the highest paying data entry people in the planet,” said Ryan Plasch, vice president of growth and strategy at Saykara, a startup that makes a voice assistant for clinicians.

On the latest episode GeekWire Health Tech podcast, we have the second installment in a two-part series on the rise of voice assistants in healthcare. We’ll hear from Saykara and Tuzag, two Seattle-area startups that are creating a future where voice assistants make healthcare more human by freeing doctors from their keyboards and even forming relationships with patients.

In the previous episode, leaders from major health systems showed how they are using voice assistants for scheduling appointments and monitoring patients.

Listen to the episode above, or subscribe to GeekWire Health Tech in your favorite podcast app. Continue reading for highlights.

Seattle-based Saykara is betting that the problem isn’t our appetite for data — it’s that we’re using the wrong technology to capture it.

“You hear a lot about pajama time for physicians and the fact that they’re spending a lot of their pajama time typing into their computers and trying to complete notes,” said Harjinder Sandhu, CEO of Saykara.

To put an end to that ‘pajama time,’ Saykara developed a voice assistant that’s unique in one respect: it never talks back. The application listens silently to the natural conversations between clinicians and patients and turns those conversations into notes that mimic what a doctor would normally type into an electronic medical record.

Sandhu has been working on this problem for a long time. Nearly 20 years ago, he co-founded a startup to transcribe physician documentation, a job that had previously been done by human transcribers.

Sandhu continues to be obsessed with this problem because it’s among the largest in healthcare.

“When you do a startup, you look at opportunities, and what’s the biggest pain point in existence in the healthcare system?” Sandhu said. “The vast majority, if not every physician will say, dealing with the electronic medical record is the pain point.”

Voice assistants offer the chance to continue grabbing all the data from a doctor-patient visit in far less time. “Voice allows for this really beautiful environment where structured, discrete clinical data that’s accurate at the point of care can be captured organically,” said Plasch.

In the near future, Sandhu and Plasch think patients will interact with voice assistants before the clinician even enters the room.

Healthcare voice assistants with a human touch

Tuzag CEO Neal Sofian. (GeekWire Photo)

Voice apps also have the potential to change the healthcare experience for patients. Health tech startup Tuzag is making conversational AI assistants to converse with patients using both voice and chat interfaces.

Tuzag CEO Neal Sofian thinks we need to be collecting the kind of data that never makes it into the medical record, such as the environmental details of a person’s life that are known as the social determinants of health. These factors affect the kind of care a patient should receive, but they often aren’t captured during routine visits.

“If you understand their life circumstance and then you can build an ongoing conversation with them, then help them solve the problems of their life,” Sofian said. “If I’m not collecting that data, how can I possibly use it?”

By asking more personal questions — either through a voice assistant during a face-to-face visit — healthcare providers can also improve relationships with patients. “The doctor-patient average relationship is not what you’d call a hot date,” Sofian said. “That’s not their fault. It’s the very structure of the system.”

While not everyone will feel comfortable divulging personal details to an AI assistant, Sofian argues that most people will embrace the idea as long as they get something in return.

“If you simply provide value up front, rarely do people even think about the privacy issue,” Sofian said. “There is a certain part of the population that will absolutely care about it, and that should be absolutely respected. Therefore, you need to build a system where any consumer should be able to turn off or turn on whatever data flow that they think is appropriate.”

I went through a demo of Tuzag’s experimental voice assistant, Life365, to see what the AI healthcare assistant of the future might sound like. The assistant covered off on important medical questions — “Is this an emergency? Did you take your medications?” — but only after breaking the ice with a question about my pet dog.

The Life365 assistant also showed off her sense of humor. After learning that my favorite movie genre was sci-fi, the assistant responded: “I can’t get enough sci-fi. Especially the ones were the AI becomes sentient.”

Audio editing and production by Jennie Cecil Moore.

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