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Talking Back at Health Tech

VP Strategy

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“Interactive Voice Response” has been around for a while, but recent consumer electronics hits like Amazon Echo signal a potential paradigm shift in how we use tech as a service. The healthcare implications are particularly intriguing, so let’s tune in—and talk back…

The English artist Francis Barraud inherited a cylinder phonograph and terrier named Nipper from his diseased brother Mark, whose ghostly recorded voice so captivated the pooch that the scene was captured in a poignant oil painting. Arguably becoming one of the most recognizable ad campaigns in communications history. “His Master’s Voice” was sold by Barraud for a hundred pounds in 1899 to the newly formed Gramophone Company, then represented the Victor Talking Machine Company, eventually EMI, RCA Victor, its parent corporation Sony Music Entertainment, and finally Warner Music Group.

Hard to imagine that a little more than a century ago the ability to record and play back a human voice was such a big deal. From there progress was exponential—telephone, radio, television, computers, the Web, mobile phones—each milestone representing not only a quantum leap in technology, but a transformative experience for the user. Broadcast television was the first to electronically combine sight and sound and do so on a screen, the audience gradually shifting from a passive to an active role, culminating in today’s touchscreen smartphones and tablets where users tap, touch, and slide dynamic content.


Didn’t Stay in Vegas

Fast forward to a few weeks ago and the talk of the CES 2017 town in Las Vegas was voice response technology, essentially interfaces that enable hands-free control. The benefits have been self-evident for decades even if the technology to enable their efficient use wasn’t—the ability to accurately interpret and respond to voice commands especially demanding from both a hardware and software perspective. But as CPUs have become increasingly smaller and more powerful, and as programming languages have evolved to standardized formats and cross-platform compatibility, the big players now furiously race for voice response dominion.

With the market for “virtual assistants” valued at over $3.6 billion by 2020, the interplay between artificial intelligence, natural language processing, customer service “bots,” and voice response systems has become the holy grail of consumer tech. Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana, Google Assistant, and Samsung Viv are all contenders, but Amazon Alexa driven by their runaway bestseller Echo is leading the pack. Its decisive advantage so far? Essentially applying the Bezos genius of re-inventing an entire ecosystem by seamlessly connecting buyers and sellers through a platform akin to Amazon Marketplace and Web Services.

At its core, Alexa is a “meta-OS,” an operating system that’s independent yet linked to a wide range of platforms through which it acts as a user-friendly interface. The compatibility makes Alexa ideal for the diverse universe of voice-controlled Internet of Things, already featured in automobiles, home appliances, heating and cooling units, lighting fixtures, baby monitors, banking and retail services, the list goes on and on, and they’re just getting started. Instead of conventional apps, Alexa uses “Skills,” or programmed modules that don’t rely on screens, adroitly “inferring” and learning to understand new voice commands and patterns.


“Alexa, tell me about Healthcare…”

The technological challenges facing most verticals, including security, inter-operability, and ease-of-use are particularly acute in healthcare. As such, voice response systems are brimming with potential to transform our industry, bringing the benefits of digital health to all key stakeholders across the system, including patients, caregivers, and professionals, from provides to payers to researchers and academics. The $100M “Alexa Fund” encourages developers, device-makers, and companies from startups to big players to experiment with the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), and Alexa Voice Service (AVS), and healthcare is leaping in.



Consider the new Alexa Skill developed by Boston Children’s Hospital and their Chief Innovation Officer, John Brownstein. After downloaded to any Alexa-enabled device, including Echo, Echo Dot, or Amazon Fire TV, parents can ask the device if symptoms such as fever, cough, headache, rash, vomiting, sore throat, fatigue, etc., warrant a call to the doctor. Parents can also ask the device for advice about weight- or age-specific guidelines for OTC drugs like acetaminophen. Clearly not meant to be a substitute for medical care, the experience nonetheless interactively helps parents get answers, and learns along the way.



Seniors are the most vulnerable of family members, yet often have the most difficulty staying connected to their caregivers. A significant challenge is often the devices used to communicate, which is complicated or cumbersome. Circumventing keyboards and even touchscreens, seniors can now simply say “Alexa, ask Marvee to…” and this Skill will perform a host of functions important for the health and well-being of aged family members, including: Sending a message that they are OK (or need help); share family news or updates; alert family members of any need or problem; ask them to call or check in, etc.


Hundreds of Health Skills

Say “Alexa, enable Mount Sinai…” and patients can find health partners connected to the hospital program. Got questions about the Zika virus? “Alexa, enable Zika facts…” to ask questions about pregnancy, transmission, and treatment. Say “Alexa, enable HealthBuddy…” to learn about the Ebola virus. And these are just the tip of the voice response ice berg for health information and services, including exercise, diet, and fitness help; medical and pediatric terminology; help with managed care information; and even an important Pill Identifier that reveals the name of the drug based on the imprinted tablets.


HealthBots and Our Digital Health Future

As Jeff Bezos has observed, “I think healthcare is going to be one of those industries that is elevated and made better by machine learning and artificial intelligence.” As we’ve discussed, the “Healthbot” is poised to transform the healthcare user experience into an immediate, intuitive, and—as we’re seeing here—voice-driven reality. And akin to the sense of amazement and wonder felt by consumers when they first heard a human voice through a cylinder phonograph back in 1900, today’s digital native will reel and avidly utilize devices they talk to—and that talk right back, getting to know them and even anticipate their needs.

What all this means for digital health—and specifically pharma marketing and commercialization—remains to be seen. But if Google’s substantial commitment is any indication, voice response will likely become the most disruptive change to communications technology since the smartphone and tablet. Think about it: Voice searches, which Google says already comprise over 20% of all mobile searches, will redefine how we reach and engage healthcare audiences. No screens mean no places for ads, forcing marketers to explore fresh paradigms for contextually engaging audiences with precisely relevant content.

The good news is that the evolution of voice-controlled “healthbots” will coincide with the emerging Internet of Everything, a personalized consumer world where physical surfaces and various devices listen to our commands and dynamically interact with our needs in real time, and with natural language speech. Every milestone along the Patient Journey, from symptoms to diagnosis to treatment decision to compliance and into advocacy will suddenly have more digital touch points, not less; and at each point healthcare system stakeholders will be able to provide information, support, and recommendations for care.


Your Talkative Commercialization Partner

Have questions and want solutions? Yan Fossett, Vice President of Klick Labs and his team are eagerly experimenting with voice control, and are loaded with ideas on how “KlickBots” and other emerging tech can help give your brands an edge. With our unique Klick blend of creativity, technology, and data we keep our clients inoculated against the future, and armed with the insights to stay adaptive in today’s chaotic marketplace. Yan’s eager to give you a listen, share the exciting new immersion, simulation, and treatment goodies, and tell you all about it

More About the Author

Michael Spitz

A digital health expert since before digital health was cool, Spitz has since developed omnichannel campaigns for top pharma and device brands, and helps drive agency innovation, digital transformation, and emerging channels. See him present at conferences, read his blogs, and follow him for the latest trends and opinions on Twitter @SpitzStrategy.

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