The Word on Voice Assistants & HIPAA Compliance

By: Brian Gresh, President 

Voice is big and getting bigger. In 2018, 58% of consumers used voice search to find local business information, according to BrightLocal. Gartner has predicted that by 2020, 30% of web browsing will be done without a screen.

What does that all mean for healthcare marketers? Voice is definitely shaking things up, but the spoken word isn’t completely rewriting the rules of healthcare marketing just yet.

Here’s where we are with voice in 2019 - and where we’re headed.  

Voice Search vs Voice Apps: Understanding the Operations

Voice works in different ways. When you ask Siri, “What’s the capital of South Dakota?”, you’re using voice search. Under the surface, it’s not much different from searching by typing into a text box. In fact, Siri uses Google search to answer your query. Your spoken search term is translated into text using Natural Language Processing (NLP), and the search mechanism goes from there.

Voice-assist platforms like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant go a step further. These devices use voice applications called “Skills” or “Actions” to complete their tasks.

Developing a voice application is a lot more complicated than installing a plug-in on your site. It’s akin to developing a mobile app, with the added twist of designing for two users: It has to play nice with the voice assistant’s interface on one side, and be valuable and user-friendly on the other.

If you want to use online banking on your phone, for example, you’ll have to download the mobile application developed by your bank. Similarly, if you want to ask Alexa how much money is in your bank account, the bank will have to first develop an Alexa Skill for that. Then you’ll have to add the company’s Skill to your Amazon Alexa account.

Voice Conversations: Still Simple

The under-the-hood complexity of voice systems translates to ease of use for consumers. Voice can be built on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, so it learns over time and gets better and better at understanding what a user is looking for, even if they don’t speak in keywords.

So far, though, most skills are driven more by simple decision-tree logic rather than true AI. In other words, the skills available are fairly rudimentary. We’re not having complex conversations in the current voice environment.

At least, not yet.

HIPAA Compliance & Complexity

When building voice-controlled applications, there’s a lot to think about — especially if you’re dealing with personal health information (PHI). When a visitor books an appointment through your website, they’re interacting directly with your site — so protecting that information is relatively straightforward. The health system knows it can wrap that conversation up in HIPAA security.

With voice assistants like Alexa, there’s a middleman in the mix. The user would ask Alexa a question, and that information would pass through Amazon on its way to the health system skill. The same goes for Google Assistant and other voice-controlled platforms. And so far, none of those platforms have demonstrated that they’re HIPAA-compliant.

The dream for many healthcare marketers is that patients will soon be able to say, “Alexa, make me an appointment with my doctor.” But the steps involved in that process are a lot more complicated than they seem.

Adding Voice for Health: What’s a Health System to Do?

While voice assistants may not be ready to tackle sensitive PHI just yet, it’s almost certainly coming. That means it’s not too soon to start exploring voice applications. By familiarizing yourself with these platforms, you’ll set yourself up for the voice revolution to come.

Here are some pointers to keep in mind as you begin to explore voice technology:

· Start simple - Dip a toe into the water with low-stakes skills. Some health systems offer voice-based daily health tips, for instance. (Think tips for getting more exercise, not advice for what to do if you’re having a heart attack.) As the technology improves, you can start to do more complex tasks.

· Consider the cost - Much like mobile apps, voice skills have to be updated frequently to stay current with voice platforms like Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. It’s not a one-and-done investment, because these platforms will continue to evolve. So before you release a flashy voice skill, make sure you have the resources to maintain and update it as needed.

· Don't forget text - Voice assistants may be the latest bright shiny objects, but voice has its time and place. Not everyone wants to announce their healthcare questions on the bus, in their office cubicle, or even their kitchen. In areas like healthcare, where privacy is important, text is still going to play a big role — so don’t neglect chat or other text-based tools in favor of voice.

Preparing for Voice

There’s no doubt that voice-based technology is a huge topic of conversation. But in the healthcare world, it’s not as far down the road as it appears to be. That’s good news for healthcare systems since it means more time to prepare. In the meantime, health systems wanting to leverage self-service and AI driven technologies should consider conversational interfaces like chatbots as a strong alternative that can deliver results today. Some advantages include:

· HIPAA compliant.

· A lower barrier to implementation (cost, time, technology, etc.)

· User adoption and confidence are much higher with chatbots than voice.

· Users are familiar with the interface.

· Currently available on the market.

The underlying technology for chatbots and other text-based search tools can eventually be used as a framework for voice. If you develop conversations and the ability to communicate via chat, you’ll be setting yourself up for all the future perks of voice.