Posted: August 16, 2017

With technology evolving at lightning speed, healthcare organizations have an ever-increasing number of tools to engage consumers. Though healthcare has, in many areas, lagged behind other industries in adopting digital technology, in some areas they now find themselves with the potential to be on the leading edge.

As organizations rapidly move to embrace the future of consumer technology, we will undoubtedly see dramatic changes in the ways consumers experience care. In the meantime, here are a few of the consumer technology trends to keep an eye on in healthcare, as well as the ways in which they may impact the consumer experience.

1. AI and Voice Interaction
Voice interaction could push consumer-centered healthcare to another level. Using responsive artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled products, patients will be able to schedule appointments, refill prescriptions, ask questions about treatment, and interface directly with caregivers — simply by asking. By tracking and analyzing the patient's preferences, a voice interaction product could then, in theory, tailor treatments and responses to their unique profile, reports Medical Futurist.

According to Healthcare IT News, Penn Medicine is currently working on voice interaction prototypes using Amazon Echo, a voice-activated speaker that connects to Amazon's Alexa Voice Service — the "face" of its voice interaction software. Commonwealth Care Alliance is also developing prototypes they hope will help patients easily find availability for appointments and schedule transportation to and from care. Because voice software is built into many smartphones, this is only the tip of the iceberg with this technology.

2. The Internet of Things (IoT)
The growing web of Internet-connected devices has numerous implications for the patient experience. From remote patient monitoring with digitally connected wearables to virtual services that can automatically detect and track blood pressure, glucose levels, and more, Internet-connected tools are dramatically improving both the ease and efficiency of care.

Indeed, as such devices become ubiquitous, the "Internet of Things" will soon begin to really be the "Internet of patients," with patient data representing all angles of patients' care, notes Health IT News. Consider that while there are now about 95 million healthcare IoT devices, that number will jump to 646 million by 2020, Business Insider predicts.

As this trend continues to explode, healthcare organizations should keep in mind that it presents both opportunities and challenges. While IoT technologies and systems can improve the consumer experience in all areas, organizations will have to integrate this growing array of products into their own systems, while watching out for PHI and HIPAA compliance.

Moreover, translating the data leveraged from the IoT into useful patient-focused materials, such as informational content, will likewise pose a challenge. Some organizations are already moving to solutions like content-as-a-service (CaaS) to help streamline some of the logistical burden involved. But with the unprecedented depth and breadth of useful, experience-enhancing data that the IoT will generate, such efforts will be more than worth it.

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3. Robots
Robots are beginning to make a huge impact in a variety of areas, including direct care, as surgical bots; in inventory management, delivering supplies around hospitals; and in home health, creating a presence for aging patients, reports CIO. To that last point, robots may, in fact, come to play a common role as surrogates for human care providers.

For instance, according to Seeker, socially assistive robots — designed for pleasant or empathetic interactions — are being developed to aid patients in areas like rehabilitation, therapy, and elderly care facilities. Because people much more readily identify and engage with humanoid robots than digital screens, for instance, socially assistive robots can help provide effective care at times when human help isn't otherwise available. Expect to see an uptick of robots along the care continuum.

4. Enhanced Data Analytics
Data analytics play a huge role in improving the customer experience in every industry, and indeed, according to Health IT News, 67% of healthcare organizations likewise believe data can help improve care delivery for patients. It makes sense: by mining the wealth of data that organizations collect from patient medical records, patient preferences, marketing systems, and more, they can tie improvements with the care experience directly to patient needs. For instance, providers can tailor patients' content to align with their particular treatment plans and disease histories.

In many ways, there's no limit to the data that organizations can collect, and Forbes reports that data collection in areas like telehealth (with its array of Internet-connected products) and genomics represents just the latest frontier of analytics.

In general, the importance of analytics will continue to grow as health systems transition to new payment models, which place a significant focus on the patient experience. To compete most effectively in those environments, organizations will have to continually improve their analytic abilities.

5. Virtual Reality
One of the cooler consumer tech trends, virtual reality is showing clear value in improving the patient experience. As HIT Consultant notes, virtuality can be used to reduce stress with patients (by guiding them through relaxing environments, for instance), help rehabilitate stroke victims, or help younger physicians understand what it's like to be an elderly patient, enabling them to deliver more informed care.

One startup recently won an MIT Sloan Healthcare Innovations price for creating a virtual reality platform that enables patients in assisted-living homes to explore a virtual world. This has not only helped patients' overall well being (improving happiness measures by 40% in one facility), but may be able to assist in diagnosing early stages of dementia.

Bottom Line
It's an exciting time for the development of consumer technologies in healthcare, both for organizations creating improved care environments and for the patients experiencing them. Of course, it may take some time for some technologies to break into the mainstream. But for an industry not known for being at the leading edge of digital and consumer tech development, it's nice to find areas where healthcare might be leading the way.

While these technologies aren't necessarily commonplace in today's healthcare landscape, there are things you can do to get started on the road to offering better consumer experiences. Want to learn more about a practical consumer engagement roadmap? Read our white paper, Healthcare Consumer Experience in 2017.