It’s a well-known fact that healthcare providers, who already have just moments to spend with a patient before rushing them out the door, will soon see their schedules grow even more hectic. The contributing factors? First, the Affordable Care Act will be adding millions to the patient population. Second, the baby-boomer generation (b. 1946 – 1964) is reaching retirement age, and, every day for the next 17 years, over 10,000 members of this generation of 78-million will be turning 65. Third, the boomers have passed their health-conscious habits on to the next generation.
Because of their high level of health-consciousness and education, members of the boomer generation (and the generations that follow) are bigger consumers of healthcare services than their parents were. They’re more invested in their wellness, and, as such, they’re seeing the doctor more frequently and using more expensive services, from preventative treatments to physical therapy to the latest in life-saving technologies.
With healthcare resources becoming increasingly strained, finding a way to serve more people more effectively with a limited supply of physicians has been occupying the thoughts of some of the country’s brightest minds. One of the solutions that’s been hit upon is using technology to offer services usually provided by doctors, like answering questions about symptoms, reminding patients to take their meds or gathering feedback about the success of their treatment plan.
The issue that’s been keeping many healthcare companies from investing in this type of technology, however, is a perception that the boomers won’t use the tools made available to them because they don’t like technology that’s hard to use.
There is a technology, however, that’s been avidly adopted by the boomer generation. Smartphones are currently owned by over 30% of U.S. baby boomers, and they’re also the demographic that’s acquiring the devices most rapidly. The question? While the devices satisfy boomers’ need for easy-to-use technology on the go, can they provide a simple way to manage often-complex wellness issues? After all, typing an in-depth question on a small touch-screen could prove extremely tedious.
Thankfully, technology has been evolving, becoming easier to use. With PCs, we’ve seen the progression from DOS, with its intimidating command-lines to the user-friendly GUI – and who would ever go back?
Smartphone interfaces have been evolving too: with devices becoming more compact, interfaces have evolved beyond simple keyboards, branching out into multi-modal interaction. Natural-language processing is enabling users to simply tell the device what they want to accomplish without the need to fumble with a touch-screen to key-in commands or questions. The best natural-language interfaces even remove the need to speak in technical jargon, because they’ve been trained to understanding how everyday people ask for information. After experiencing the ease with which complicated tasks can be accomplished via natural-language, who would ever go back to typing on a touch-screen or guessing which search terms will bring up the desired results.
The potential uses for this simple means of interaction are many, and span all sectors of healthcare, from providers to payers to pharma. In fact, the technology has recently received recognition from the Future of Technology Health Institute, a leading health technology think tank dedicated to defining the health technology agenda for the 21st century. The institute predicts that natural-language enabled virtual health assistants (VHAs) will enable healthcare professionals to serve more patients more effectively by giving patients easy access to personalized health information via their smartphone or PC.
So, in the future, will healthcare professionals be stretched thin? Unquestionably. But with an ally that enables them to extend their ability to provide personalized care, the future of healthcare remains bright.