As Doctors Adopt Virtual Tools, Human Relationships Grow More Vital

Voice-controlled virtual assistants, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence technologies could all reshape the healthcare industry in the coming years, but forming strong relationships between patients and doctors will be more important than ever.

That was a key takeaway from a panel discussion Thursday night at General Assembly’s space in downtown Boston. I moderated the chat among Jenni Tandet, the community manager for Pulse@MassChallenge, the new local “lab” that supports digital health startups; Beverly Hardy, an innovation strategy manager at Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s digital innovation hub; and Scott Newland, senior user experience and user interface designer at Partners HealthCare Connected Health. (We’re pictured above.)

Here are a few highlights of our conversation:

—Voice technologies could free up doctors to engage more with patients.

One of the downsides to the addition of digital tools in doctors’ offices is that they’re now spending more time on tedious administrative tasks. They already have limited time to spend with patients, and now some of that precious time is taken up by them facing a computer screen and typing information into a software program.

Hardy thinks voice-controlled virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant could provide a possible solution. The doctor could dictate information to the virtual assistant, which would record it in the patient’s electronic medical record.

“Anything that can remove that screen barrier, or someone even fiddling with an iPad, I think voice is the most prevalent [technology] we are seeing that can help with that,” Hardy said. “But it’s not abandoning the EMR [electronic medical record]. It’s not moving on to the next thing. It’s really augmenting the EMR and making it the information backbone that it was meant to be for” care providers.

—Artificial intelligence will push doctors to focus more on relationships with patients.

A frequent complaint from patients is that some doctors have “a poor bedside manner,” Newland said. But he thinks that will change because as software becomes more sophisticated and handles more tasks for caregivers, their training will shift to emphasize “the human relationship” and building “emotional intelligence.”

The doctor will basically become a “concierge,” Newland said, focusing on making the patient more comfortable and improving his or her experience while receiving healthcare. The doctor will also be the “translator” interpreting the information and insights generated by A.I. technologies, he added.

“That, I feel like, is going to disrupt our entire understanding of what a doctor does today,” Newland said. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but that’s where I feel artificial intelligence is eventually going to take us.”

—Collaboration among all the stakeholders in healthcare will be key.

A core component of Pulse@MassChallenge’s program is that selected startups—there are 31 in the inaugural six-month session that runs until June—get matched with a partner organization to work on a project during that period. The collaborators might co-develop new technologies, or apply a startup’s product or service toward solving a problem for the partner, for example. Partner organizations include hospitals, insurers, larger tech companies, nonprofits, and government entities.

Pulse’s program has encouraged joint projects by companies and organizations that one might not expect to collaborate, Tandet said. That sort of activity will need to continue in order to solve some of healthcare’s greatest challenges, she said.

“I would say the future of healthcare is all about collaboration,” she said. “That’s really what’s going to change [healthcare] … is people not working in silos.”

To that end, Hardy’s group at Brigham and Women’s Hospital has been working over the past year or so to open up the hospital more to partnerships with startups.

“We’re really trying to dispel that myth that hospitals are terrible partners to work with,” she said.

Those efforts include implementing processes that smooth the pathway for startups, while maintaining the proper information security reviews and other “governance” protocols that protect the hospital and its patients, Hardy said. “We try to make it really easy to say yes” to startups, she said.

But the hospital is also learning how to “say no quickly,” she added, so that the startup doesn’t waste time and resources pursuing a sale that isn’t going to happen. “A lot of entrepreneurs have said this is super valuable that we’re not going to be going back and forth,” Hardy said.

[Above photo taken by Alexandra Howley, local marketing producer for General Assembly.]

Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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