Virtual Health Assistants Poised to Revolutionize Healthcare Delivery

Published Online:November 08, 2012
Technology continues to advance at such an incredible pace that it can be hard for many industries to keep up with the ways in which new systems and processes can help them be more effective. In this morning’s session, “Your Next Provider Will Be an Avatar,” presenter Thomas Morrow, MD, explained why it’s necessary for the healthcare industry to not only keep pace with technological innovations, but also to integrate these technologies into several aspects of care.
A self-described “techno-freak” and “pocket protector wearer,” Dr Morrow began the presentation by talking about how most new technologies are disruptive at the tactical level, but that they need to be more disruptive at a strategic level. What is disruptive technology? Dr Morrow first used the 8-track tapes from the 1980s as an example, saying that they allowed people to bring their music into their car for the first time without having to rely on what’s playing on the radio. In other words, the technology provided more accessible and convenient options for the user. Dr Morrow took a moment to run down some of the disruptive technologies that have occurred in healthcare over the past several decades, citing examples like heart valve replacements, biologic drugs, catheters, regenerative medicine, and the da Vinci robot. The next revolutionary disruptive technology that needs to transform medicine, according to Dr Morrow, is the Virtual Health Assistant (VHA).
The VHA is a technology that is not only needed, but inevitable. There needs to be a sophisticated technology that is capable of cutting down on the high cost of medical care. Dramatic physician shortages—which are poised to only worsen—and the constant explosion of information that cannot be handled because of natural cognitive limitations are leading to less time for patients in the examination room. To prove this point, Dr Morrow mentioned that primary care physicians (PCPs), on average, take on 28% more patients than they are able to handle. Even worse, patients typically have only 27 seconds to explain their symptoms before being interrupted by their physician. Dr Morrow added a personal anecdote related to this statistic, telling the audience about how a patient he had been speaking to was having chest problems and went to see several doctors without having any improvement. The patient had been interrupted and misdiagnosed each time until Dr Morrow had actually stopped to listen to all of his symptoms and told him to ask his next doctor about potentially having an aneurysm, which turned out to be the case. The patient was admitted later that day.
Because the healthcare system has become so expensive, time constraints have made it impossible for patients to receive optimum, quality care; in fact, some studies have shown that up to 70% of patients are unsatisfied with their quality of care. Dr Morrow mentioned that he had seen a statistic claiming that PCPs in the United States typically spend 15 minutes with each patient. “That must include the waiting room,” said Dr Morrow, “because I have never had 15 minutes with my PCP.”
It is also no secret that chronic conditions plague the healthcare system in the United States. But what if VHAs could improve adherence and outcomes by providing a technology that can not only understand and interpret questions and statements that patients have, but also provide reminders to take medications and resources for any concerns they might have? The fact is that these technologies exist today and are becoming more advanced by the day. In fact, people already use this technology on a daily basis. Whether it is to check a bank statement, schedule a flight, or keep abreast of minutes used on our cell phone plan, virtual assistants are helping customers get the information they need. In fact, Forrester released data showing that 1.4 million conversations are taking place with virtual assistants every day. By 2015, 50% of online customer self-service search will be via a virtual agent for at least 1500 larger enterprises, says Gartner. With so many other industries utilizing this technology, there is no doubt that there are endless possibilities within the healthcare industry.
Many companies have already begun to implement this technology into healthcare settings. Some examples include Next IT, Nuance, VirtuOz, and Creative Virtual. And, some of the current integrations are quite impressive: Aetna health has received rave reviews about its VHA “Ann,” which has greeted half of the first time visitors to their website since Ann’s creation. You can view a preview and introduction from Ann herself by going to Aetna’s website and taking the virtual tour. And, this is just the beginning of what VHAs can do for healthcare. Of course, there will be regulatory obstacles to overcome, and providers will need to be able to demonstrate the value of such interventions, but here are some of the additional ways in which Dr Morrow believes VHAs will be able to transform the healthcare system:
  • Managed Care Organizations: HEDIS and medication adherence improvements are the low hanging fruit right now.
  • Disease management companies can utilize this technology to help patients better manage chronic conditions.
  • Retail pharmacies can set medication reminders.
  • Specialty pharmacies can use this technology for clinical assessments.
  • Pharmacy benefit managers: can also use aspects of disease management and medication reminder programs.
  • Pharmaceutical companies can use VHAs for patient recorded outcomes.
  • Hospitals can use a variety of programs to reduce readmission rates.
Dr Morrow also mentioned that accountable care organizations should be able to integrate VHAs in a number of ways, and that those ways varied depending on how the organization is set up.
The possibilities for VHAs in healthcare are endless. With the technology available at the disposal of patients, providers, and payers, it is essential to start incorporating these programs into daily life. With the potential for cost savings, no one can afford to ignore these technological advancements.