Eliza Speech Recognition Technology Out to Make Healthcare Communication Sexier

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It’s no surprise that many aspects of the healthcare system are deemed broken. But Beverly, MA-based Eliza is targeting a segment of the healthcare business that draws far less attention than the usual big ticket subjects like health insurance coverage or Medicare reimbursement codes.

Eliza uses a software-as-a-service model to deliver interactive communications for insurance companies and other healthcare stakeholders to patients. Typically healthcare providers and insurance companies communicate to patients about their health in a “boring, non-sexy way,” says Alexandra Drane, Eliza’s founder and president.

To remedy this, Eliza provides services that incorporate intelligent speech-recognition technology into a system of automated phone calls, text messages, and e-mails designed to engage consumers on the subject of their health and that encourage them to act by taking preventative healthcare measures. The phone calls typically don’t just explain a health problem to users or instruct them to get preventative screenings, says Drane. In her view, improving patient health is “not an information problem, it’s an inspiration problem.”

Instead of calling to tell someone that they are overweight and describing the health implications, Eliza’s service will offer practical, attainable suggestions on how to lose weight (and get back in your skinny jeans), such as cutting out soda. And rather than just informing people that they’re due for a preventive screening, they’ll ask why they haven’t gotten one yet. They can also directly transfer the phone calls to users’ healthcare providers to schedule appointments.

“Getting someone to change behavior is hard,” Drane says. “It’s not like a one-hit wonder. To the extent that we can be establishing relationships over time, that’s been a huge benefit for us.” Eliza also offers a Web-based portal for measuring the effectiveness of its communications, gathering real-time data on call responses, and enabling clients to modify programs for patients.

AlexandraDraneThe voice recognition technology behind Eliza’s service isn’t designed to just capture the words that customers use in their responses to Eliza’s motivational calls, but also the tone and inflection of what they are saying. It can use these responses to better craft future phone calls, tailoring the language, terms, and healthcare subjects on such factors as a patient’s age, gender, and demographic location. “Every interaction is about getting more insight into who you are,” Drane says. More than 400 million phone calls have been made through the service in the last ten years (As far as protecting privacy goes, the company’s technology has ISO 27001 certification for managing information security.)

Eliza’s technology has been in development since the 1980′s, but Drane joined in 2000, when it was “a classic example of really smart engineering with zero application,” she says. Drane, who had recently sold her Web-based injury tracking startup, Tesseract, and had worked in other healthcare consulting and startup endeavors, found the Eliza technology to be “the holy grail for healthcare,” she says. To date, the company has not raised institutional financing, but was originally funded by angel investors and management. It’s been profitable for more than seven years, she says, and has annual revenue between $25 million and $50 million (the company declined to reveal the exact figure).

Traditionally, the company has charged companies on a much more transactional basis, such as a price per call or email, but Eliza is moving toward a more subscription-based model. Clients would set a goal of getting patients healthier over a certain period of time, and Eliza develops a system of communication to best achieve that outcome in the most cost-effective way.

Eliza works with three types of customers, health plan providers, prescription benefit managers, and employers. The insurance company customers, which include Kaiser Permanente, SelectHealth, and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, typically use the technology to develop overall wellness and preventative health programs. Employers most often use the service to better explain benefits to employees. Prescription benefit managers employ it as a way to keep patients on track in taking their medication on schedule. (We’ve written about other Health IT companies that incorporate this goal into their technology, like Internet-connected pill cap maker Vitality).

The Eliza product could prove particularly useful to insurers as healthcare reform advances and patients are given more control in selecting their plans, Drane says. She says insurers’ use of the Eliza service could reflect a willingness to be more relevant to patients and target the healthcare issues that affect individual consumers most. “Health plans are recognizing the importance of them having a brand that matters to people,” she says.

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