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Healthcare’s voice revolution

With the UK’s NHS unveiling a major partnership with Amazon’s Alexa, is pharma in danger of being left behind?

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by Alistair Ellmer

According to research from EY, almost a quarter of UK households now own a voice- controlled digital home assistant device and a further 41% plan to own one in the next five years. 

While there are plenty of obvious day-to- day uses for these devices (checking the weather, sourcing music, finding recipes, etc), it is evident that this rapid roll-out of voice tech in the home also has implications for healthcare.

Our research reveals that 27% of people with a smart speaker at home are already using it to look up medical advice or would be particularly interested in doing so if the technology were improved further and became easier to use.

These are early days for voice-enabled healthcare. We found its use right now is largely restricted to self-diagnosis and fitness checks, including linking the speaker to a fitness band or smartwatch. Yet there are so many ways in which smart speakers might significantly improve patient welfare.

For a complex, chronic condition like diabetes, with so many steps and tasks patients must complete each day, imagine the reassurance of having a voice assistant to provide reminders and ensure no critical steps are missed. Or picture older people with memory issues who could rely on their voice assistant to ensure they take all their medication for the day.

Taking it a step further, think of how voice might be used to record the nature and frequency of symptoms. Few people have the time, patience or inclination to write down every single time they experience shortness of breath or sudden bouts of pain – but using a voice device is so simple that patients could quickly build a more accurate pattern of their condition.

The pharma opportunity

Situations like these, and many more, make voice assistance a compelling opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to build deeper, more sustainable connections with their customers.

Given that the pharma industry is prevented from advertising directly to consumers almost everywhere (except the USA and New Zealand), being able to provide support to medication users via voice tech is potentially a powerful communications channel – especially as it sits in the heart of the home.

For pharmaceutical companies that can deliver genuine added value via voice tech, there is also a real opportunity to improve their relationship with healthcare professionals. In the constant fight to stand out from the crowd, voice support, and the positive patient feedback it generates, could easily be the factor that sets one brand apart from another.

At the very least, the level and quality of voice support and subsequent benefits to the patient may help encourage prescribers to keep patients on a specific medication.

And the additional support provided by voice tech may lead prescribers to advocate that particular medication to other patients and peers. Conversely, pharma companies that don’t engage with voice tech risk being seen as outdated.

The big tech threat

Even though voice tech represents an obvious win-win opportunity for patients and pharma companies, it seems that the industry’s major players are already in danger of missing out.

Well- established incumbents are being left behind by tech platforms such as Apple, Google and Amazon. Amazon, for example, is working with developers on a series of software solutions that would enable consumers to ask its virtual assistant Alexa for help with things like booking an appointment, accessing hospital post-discharge instructions and checking on the status of a prescription delivery.

voice tech

It has also recently hit the headlines because of its partnership with the NHS. Google, by comparison, is reckoned to have backed in the region of 60 health-related companies via its GV (Google Ventures) arm (eg 23andMe and Doctor on Demand). Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has also filed almost 200 health-related patents in the last five years.

Not only has pharma been slow to raise its voice, our research suggests that it also needs to persuade patients that it has a role to play in this arena.

When we asked smart tech users with a long-term condition who they wanted to see leading the way in this field, 55% said healthcare providers and 52% said tech companies. Only 28% said they would like pharma companies to be involved.

The prescription for success

So, given that most consumers don’t automatically recognise the value that pharma can offer through voice tech, what should the sector’s forward-thinking firms do? Well, if they learn from other industries, the first critical step is to form meaningful collaborations, blending their own in-depth knowledge of patients’ needs with a partner’s technical innovation.

That way, they will be best-positioned to create an optimal piece of voice assistance tech that will combine real patient benefits with the very best in user interfaces.

Working alongside one of the tech giants might seem to be the obvious route – given the power of their global networks. But it’s also important to explore opportunities among start-up and emerging platforms.

While they may lack the scale of the big tech players, such partnerships allow pharma firms greater scope to shape the development of patient- focused services based around their own products.

Given that the hardware is already out there, the initial focus for pharma must be on simple software solutions that bring benefits to people’s lives. There is no need to be overly ambitious at this stage – it is enough simply to establish a partnership position in the voice ecosystem that can be built on as the demand for voice tech increases.

The second critical step is to make sure that any advances in this area are genuinely patient-centric – not tech for tech’s sake, nor weighted overly in favour of commercial goals.

Our research shows patients have yet to be convinced about pharma companies’ role in this space. The way to overcome that and build a new level of trust is to enter an ongoing conversation with patients – to engage with them regularly to gain up-to-date insight into their evolving needs and concerns.

Tackling adverse reactions

Having said all this, there are other factors that are likely to make progress for pharma companies difficult. Healthcare professionals themselves could inadvertently become potential obstacles for a couple of reasons. One, understandably, is the time pressures they face at work.

Presented with the prospect of explaining yet another new innovation to patients, healthcare professionals may see this as a lower priority task with limited added value, especially when the technology lacks the verifiable, robust evidence they are used to seeing accompanying new product launches.

Second, given that people who suffer from chronic conditions tend to be older, healthcare professionals may think that their older patients won’t want or be able to embrace new tech. In reality, voice devices are one of the easiest technologies for older generations to master.

For pharma companies, one solution to this is outlined above – namely to try to win support from patients, who can then relay positive endorsements back to prescribers. They will likely favour simple, intuitive solutions – so that end users are not put off by the complexity of the tech.

The other is to prove conclusively to prescribers that the integration of voice tech into the patient journey will have a long-term benefit to patient outcomes, save them time and increase efficiency. But this is no easy feat and will require a commitment to collecting usage data in order to generate proof points.

Worth keeping in mind, however, is that voice devices are arguably the most user-friendly of all recent tech developments. Unlike trying to get to grips with smartphone functionality, voice tech really does have the potential to simplify peoples’ lives.

The elephant in the room is the issue of privacy and security – which has been at the front of people’s minds since the Facebook/ Cambridge Analytica scandal.

According to our research, 45% of consumers are worried about their personal information being analysed without their knowledge, while 43% are concerned about hacking or a general lack of security. This high level of concern about data security relates to all personal information.

Interestingly, people are no more nor less concerned about the security of their medical data. Nevertheless, pharma companies exploring the potential of voice devices will need to work with tech innovators to find an approach that gives patients greater control of their data and complete confidence that their privacy will be maintained.

The challenges of voice assistance may seem daunting, but the role of voice tech in healthcare is certain to expand. While today’s tech is focused on command-and-answer, voice tech will become more proactive and contextually aware – able to make suggestions based on a person’s sounds or movements.

Voice tech is certain to play a bigger and bigger role in people’s lives, not least in healthcare. It is important that pharma companies recognise this and move quickly to bring the benefits of voice to their patients, or risk losing ground to more agile competitors.

Alistair Ellmer is Associate Director at Simpson Carpenter, a research firm

29th October 2019

From: Research

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