Can Medical Alexas Make Us Healthier?

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it on weekdays.

Are speech recognition technologies like Alexa helpful in medicine or are they nonsense? For now, the short answer is a little bit of both.

Microsoft announced Monday that it would be spending approximately $ 16 billion to buy Nuance Communications, whose voice transcription software is used in the healthcare sector.

Microsoft and other tech companies like Google and Amazon have great ambitions to transform the industry with artificial intelligence technologies, including speech recognition programs and efforts to identify signs of illness and disease.

The great hope of technology in medicine is that it can help us become healthier and improve America’s expensive and often ineffective and unjust health system. The message I’ve heard from medical experts is that there is potential there, but there is also a lot of hot air.

The hope of medical Alexas:

For years, doctors have used Nuance transcription software to take notes on patients and convert them into text for medical records. In theory, this frees doctors from having to do paperwork so they can spend more time treating us.

Nuance and other tech and healthcare providers want to do a lot more with our voices. One idea is that microphones (with permission) can record interactions between doctors and patients and log the relevant details into medical files – without much human intervention. Computers would also be smart enough to order any required tests and do the billing.

That sounds cool and maybe a little creepy. These ideas are still in development and it is not clear how well these medical alexas would work. Dr. However, Eric J. Topol, professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research and author of several books on technology in medicine, told me that speech recognition systems are one of the most momentous uses of artificial intelligence in healthcare, at least in the short term.

In Cedars-Sinai, a healthcare system in southern California, most hospital rooms have been equipped with voice-activated devices, said Darren Dworkin, the organization’s chief information officer. Currently, the devices are mainly used for relatively everyday interactions, e.g. For example, when a nurse asks a device to show a patient a video to prevent dangerous falls.

Dworkin said he was extremely optimistic about using voice and other technologies to automate administrative work, such as approving insurance for medical treatments and sending customized text messages to patients.

Dworkin said that this use of technology may not be what many considered a wow factor, but that busy work is a huge cost and challenge in healthcare.

“Not everything has to be state-of-the-art,” said Dworkin. “Don’t let the simple things overtake you.” (Another vote for the importance of boring technology!)

Where hope meets harsh reality:

Almost every technology in healthcare – and in many other areas – promises to reduce administrative burdens and costs. Yet, for the most part, healthcare spending and bureaucracy continue to grow in the United States.

Dr. Dhruv Khullar, a doctor and assistant professor of health policy and economics at Weill Cornell Medicine, said he was optimistic that language technology and artificial intelligence could reduce administrative burdens and help patients. But he said his hope was not yet supported by rigorous evidence.

“Right now, there isn’t much evidence that AI cuts costs or improves health outcomes,” Dr. Khullar. (I borrowed the “Alexas Medical” line from him.)

I asked these health professionals an overarching question: What role should technology play in addressing the fundamental problems of American health care?

They largely agreed that advances in technology could help reduce costs and improve the quality of service in our healthcare system, but that it wasn’t a panacea for our biggest problems.

“I would say it’s part of the answer, but not a big part of it,” said Dr. Khullar.

(And read more from DealBook: How Did Microsoft Avoid Most of the Government’s Antitrust Attention? My Answer: Microsoft’s essential technology is mostly boring. That’s a good thing.)

Your lead

Last week I pointed out a great article about Indians getting used to expensive cell phone calls by finding new ways of communication where they hung up in the middle of the ring. An on-tech reader, Morris Fried of Somerset, New Jersey, wrote to us on his family’s missed call communications system decades ago:

Her note about using missed communication calls in India brought back old memories of the same technology in that country. (I’ll be 75 next month.)

We went back to Philadelphia when I was a kid after visiting my grandmother in Brooklyn. My mother then called the operator and requested a person-to-person long distance call under her own name on my grandmother’s phone number.

My grandmother answered the phone and told the operator that my mother was not there. This enabled my mother to inform her mother that we had got home safely without incurring the then not inconsiderable long-distance costs.

“If you’ve always wanted your own haunted Victorian child in the body of a little dog who hates men and children …” I laughed at this extremely detailed description of Prancer on Facebook and his MANY special habits posted by a New Jersey became pet adoption league.

We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you would like us to explore. You can reach us at

If you do not have this newsletter in your inbox yet, please register here.

Comments are closed.