A new research collaboration aims to improve both data collection and patient engagement in clinical trials by harnessing the power of voice recognition. By Elly Earls

Already a big part of our daily lives, voice assistant technologies are now also making their way into the healthcare industry, with research projects underway and prototypes under development to be used in hospitals, at home and during clinical trials.

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Orbita, a provider of voice-first software for connected home healthcare and ERT, a global data and technology company focused on minimising risk in clinical trials, have recently put their heads together to research the potential of voice assistants to improve patient engagement and optimise data collection in the clinical trial setting. Early feedback suggests it’s an area with great potential.

The rise of voice assistant technology   

At the end of 2016, 45% of US smartphone owners reported using a voice-enabled personal assistant through an app or dedicated device; among millennial smartphone owners, the figure is 63%.

For Orbita president Nathan Treloar, this ‘boom of voice-assistant devices’ has come about thanks to a confluence of various technologies. “Speech recognition technology has improved dramatically even just in the last three years thanks in part to the huge volumes of data companies like Amazon and Google have access to,” he says. “We are also more connected now and speeds are faster. Plus, microphones are much more advanced. It’s just sort of come together, a little bit like the early days of smartphones and even the web itself.”

“People are being cared for more in their homes and where we saw this technology fitting in is providing a way to reach and engage with those patients”

Treloar’s company decided to specialise in healthcare because of the potential of voice technology to manage the cost of care without compromising on quality. “People are being cared for more in their homes and where we saw this technology fitting in is providing a way to reach and engage with those patients outside of a clinical setting,” he explains. “Voice assistant devices aren’t for everybody but we saw them filling an important gap.”

The jump into clinical trials came following a meeting with Karin Beckstrom, a senior product manager at ERT, at a connected healthcare conference in Boston in late 2016. ERT’s Innovation Lab was launched in early 2016 to create new and efficient ways – through collaboration with technologies providers, researchers and scientists – to safely explore technologies for use in clinical research and Beckstrom believed Orbita would be a perfect fit.

“One of our 2017 initiatives was leveraging artificial intelligence, and voice was one of the areas we were focused on wanting to test out,” she explains. “Orbita were so far in front of the technology on using voice, had a lot of experience in the healthcare industry and had a scalable platform already in place. So it seemed like a nice segue for us to try it out.”

A powerful experience for patients

Over recent months the two companies have been working together to research how ERT’s EXPERT technology platform for clinical trial data collection, processing and analysis can be combined with Orbita Voice, a first-of-its-kind solution for creating conversational applications using intelligent voice agents such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.

The outcome is a solution through which patients can use the power of voice to complete interactive surveys, verify completion of care tasks and report health concerns while clinical trials investigators and coordinators can use built-in analytics to track user engagement and respond to user input.

“There are many reasons voice can help out in clinical trials but one of the main topics that always came up when we were talking to sponsors and patients was its capability to be a companion, someone who’s always there for them,” says Beckstrom. “This concept of bringing a partner in the clinical trial right into the home of the patient is really important. They can ask questions and get guidance. It really brings a powerful experience to that patient.”

Adds Treloar: “Patients who are more comfortable accessing their daily assessment surveys and recording information about their wellness are likely to be more engaged and active participants in a trial. Even recruitment can be done more effectively because you’re providing them with a way to participate that’s less burdensome than traditional methods. So the cost of data collection goes down, the quality of data collection goes up and hopefully the outcome of the clinical trial is more reliable.”

Now the technology has been tested in ERT’s Innovation Lab the next step is to integrate it into the EXPERT platform. “We’ve tested both the technology and the usability side and the feedback we’ve had has been positive so we’re really looking forward to integrating it,” says Beckstrom, adding that, for regulatory reasons, the platform’s voice capabilities will not be used to provide medical advice. “We want to make sure we’re not crossing that line.”

Beyond clinical trials

Elsewhere in healthcare, Treloar has been surprised to see how quickly voice recognition technology is being adopted.

“We don’t really have a benchmark to compare it against,” he admits, “but I’ve been very impressed by how quickly the healthcare and pharma organisations we’ve been working with have been moving onto these voice-first applications. It’s certainly the case that these are cutting edge innovation projects for a lot of these companies but it is happening and it’s happening now.”

For example, he expects concepts such as replacing traditional red buttons with voice assistants to become a reality in the next couple of years. “The idea is that patients will just be able to say ‘When is my next meal?’ or ‘I need somebody to come in and adjust my bandage’ and the voice assistant will respond,” Treloar says.

“The idea is that patients will just be able to say ‘When is my next meal?’ or ‘I need somebody to come in and adjust my bandage.”

After receiving three new Amazon Echo Shows, essentially an Echo with a screen on it, Orbita has also developed a prototype that not only speaks back to users, but can play a video. “You can say ‘play the video of how to replace my bandage’ or ‘show me the exercise for my new knee joint’ and it will show you something back visually,” he explains. The company is also working on half a dozen projects related to assisted living, particularly focused on addressing isolation and allowing patients to be connected more socially.

Both Treloar and Beckstrom are convinced that voice has a place in the future of clinical trials, particularly – at first, at least – for patients with dexterity, sight or cognitive issues. “Just as we are seeing [voice] become ubiquitous in day-to-day life, this will get mirrored in clinical trial life,” Beckstrom concludes. There are certainly no two better companies better placed to bring this to fruition.