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Alexa Can Truly Give Patients a Voice in Their Health Care (Part 1 of 3)

Posted on October 16, 2017 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space. Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

The leading pharmaceutical and medical company Merck, together with Amazon Web Services, has recently been exploring the potential health impacts of voice interfaces and natural language processing (NLP) through an Alexa Diabetes Challenge. I recently talked to the five finalists in this challenge. This article explores the potential of new interfaces to transform the handling of chronic disease, and what the challenge reveals about currently available technology.

Alexa, of course, is the ground-breaking system that brings everyday voice interaction with computers into the home. Most of its uses are trivial (you can ask about today’s weather or change channels on your TV), but one must not underestimate the immense power of combining artificial intelligence with speech, one of the most basic and essential human activities. The potential of this interface for disabled or disoriented people is particularly intriguing.

The diabetes challenge is a nice focal point for exploring the more serious contribution made by voice interfaces and NLP. Because of the alarming global spread of this illness, the challenge also presents immediate opportunities that I hope the participants succeed in productizing and releasing into the field. Using the challenge’s published criteria, the judges today announced Sugarpod from Wellpepper as the winner.

This article will list some common themes among the five finalists, look at the background about current EHR interfaces and NLP, and say a bit about the unique achievement of each finalist.

Common themes

Overlapping visions of goals, problems, and solutions appeared among the finalists I interviewed for the diabetes challenge:

  • A voice interface allows more frequent and easier interactions with at-risk individuals who have chronic conditions, potentially achieving the behavioral health goal of helping a person make the right health decisions on a daily or even hourly basis.

  • Contestants seek to integrate many levels of patient intervention into their tools: responding to questions, collecting vital signs and behavioral data, issuing alerts, providing recommendations, delivering educational background material, and so on.

  • Services in this challenge go far beyond interactions between Alexa and the individual. The systems commonly anonymize and aggregate data in order to perform analytics that they hope will improve the service and provide valuable public health information to health care providers. They also facilitate communication of crucial health data between the individual and her care team.

  • Given the use of data and AI, customization is a big part of the tools. They are expected to determine the unique characteristics of each patient’s disease and behavior, and adapt their advice to the individual.

  • In addition to Alexa’s built-in language recognition capabilities, Amazon provides the Lex service for sophisticated text processing. Some contestants used Lex, while others drew on other research they had done building their own natural language processing engines.

  • Alexa never initiates a dialog, merely responding when the user wakes it up. The device can present a visual or audio notification when new material is present, but it still depends on the user to request the content. Thus, contestants are using other channels to deliver reminders and alerts such as messaging on the individual’s cell phone or alerting a provider.

  • Alexa is not HIPAA-compliant, but may achieve compliance in the future. This would help health services turn their voice interfaces into viable products and enter the mainstream.

Some background on interfaces and NLP

The poor state of current computing interfaces in the medical field is no secret–in fact, it is one of the loudest and most insistent complaints by doctors, such as on sites like KevinMD. You can visit Healthcare IT News or JAMA regularly and read the damning indictments.

Several factors can be blamed for this situation, including unsophisticated electronic health records (EHRs) and arbitrary reporting requirements by Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). Natural language processing may provide one of the technical solutions to these problems. The NLP services by Nuance are already famous. An encouraging study finds substantial time savings through using NLP to enter doctor’s insights. And on the other end–where doctors are searching the notes they previously entered for information–a service called Butter.ai uses NLP for intelligent searches. Unsurprisingly, the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) looks forward to the contributions of NLP.

Some app developers are now exploring voice interfaces and NLP on the patient side. I covered two such companies, including the one that ultimately won the Alexa Diabetes Challenge, in another article. In general, developers using these interfaces hope to eliminate the fuss and abstraction in health apps that frustrate many consumers, thereby reaching new populations and interacting with them more frequently, with deeper relationships.

The next two parts of this article turn to each of the five finalists, to show the use they are making of Alexa.

CVS Launches Analytics-Based Diabetes Mgmt Program For PBMs

Posted on December 29, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

CVS Health has launched a new diabetes management program for its pharmacy benefit management customers designed to improve diabetes outcomes through advanced analytics.  The new program will be available in early 2017.

The CVS program, Transform Diabetes Care, is designed to cut pharmacy and medical costs by improving diabetics’ medication adherence, A1C levels and health behaviors.

CVS is so confident that it can improve diabetics’ self-management that it’s guaranteeing that percentage increases in spending for antidiabetic meds will remain in the single digits – and apparently that’s pretty good. Or looked another way, CVS contends that its PBM clients could save anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 per year for each member that improves their diabetes control.

To achieve these results, CVS is using analytics tools to find specific ways enrolled members can better care for themselves. The pharmacy giant is also using its Health Engagement Engine to find opportunities for personalized counseling with diabetics. The counseling sessions, driven by this technology, will be delivered at no charge to enrolled members, either in person at a CVS pharmacy location or via telephone.

Interestingly, members will also have access to diabetes visit at CVS’s Minute Clinics – at no out-of-pocket cost. I’ve seen few occasions where CVS seems to have really milked the existence of Minute Clinics for a broader purpose, and often wondered where the long-term value was in the commodity care they deliver. But this kind of approach makes sense.

Anyway, not surprisingly the program also includes a connected health component. Diabetics who participate in the program will be offered a connected glucometer, and when they use it, the device will share their blood glucose levels with a pharmacist-led team via a “health cloud.” (It might be good if CVS shared details on this — after all, calling it a health cloud is more than a little vague – but it appears that the idea is to make decentralized patient data sharing easy.) And of course, members have access to tools like medication refill reminders, plus the ability to refill a prescription via two-way texting, via the CVS Pharmacy.

Expect to see a lot more of this approach, which makes too much sense to ignore. In fact, CVS itself plans to launch a suite of “Transform Care” programs focused on managing expensive chronic conditions. I can only assume that its competitors will follow suit.

Meanwhile, I should note that while I expect to see providers launch similar efforts, so far I haven’t seen many attempts. That may be because patient engagement technology is relatively new, and probably pretty expensive too. Still, as value-based care becomes the dominant payment model, providers will need to get better at managing chronic diseases systematically. Perhaps, as the CVS effort unfolds, it can provide useful ideas to consider.