Freeing physicians to focus on patients: Computer Task Group's Jeanette Ball shares insights on voice technology


Jeanette Ball, client solution executive at IT service company Computer Task Group, discusses health system EHR workflow optimization, including the incorporation of voice recognition technology and virtual patient care.

Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: Where do you see the biggest need for innovation to improve the healthcare system in the future?

Jeanette Ball: We need innovation in technology that breaks down data siloes and enables interoperability, but we also need innovation in how we perceive healthcare. It's not only receiving care from doctors; it's about the agencies and organizations that impact our health, especially for the Medicaid populations, the indigent and the underserved that experience more disparities. If you are going to lose your electricity, your provider needs to know. Patients who can't afford heat probably can't pay for the medicine that keeps them out of the hospital. We need to innovate how we bring these other agencies and community organizations — the food kitchens, the housing authorities, the counselor the patient is seeing — into the healthcare ecosystem.

We also must improve as a national healthcare system by fully tapping into remote care technology and video exams. If you are homebound or in a rural area with few providers, this will open needed access to quality care. We could also facilitate more group education and support via video chats on a range of topics, including depression, weight loss and diabetic education. For many patients, this would provide a desperately needed link to society.

We should also enable more EHR portal visits for patients who just need a quick medication refill or something relatively routine. All these improvements in remote, video and portal exams ultimately require getting rid of old biases that care must take place in the traditional setting of the hospital or physician's office.

Q: How do you feel about the use of voice recognition technology, such as Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant in healthcare. Is there a place for its use within the EHR?

JB: Of course. Any time we can have the computer do things smarter, we're better off. Being able to give voice commands to your EHR such as, 'show me all the hospital admissions the patient has had in the last six years,' would save a lot of digging. As would voice commands to look up the best clinical guidelines for a patient with, say, renal failure and hypertension, or the best blood pressure medicine for that patient.

There are some limited technologies that do voice searches now, but only for the information you've loaded in the EHR. Imagine a voice search that can pull answers from other sources, as well, like 'show me all the food pantries in these three zip codes.' And then you can print the list off and hand it to your patient.

Q: What advice would you offer to hospital CMIOs looking to improve physician happiness when it comes to the EHR?

JB: Most EHRs were originally deployed without a lot of physician input — and it shows. We can't continue to expect physicians to endlessly click through these systems, and the technology has evolved enough where they shouldn't have to. I advise looking at the most recent releases of EHRs to see what's changed and how these systems can be better optimized now for the physician. This may sound very basic, but hospitals can be resistant to change and think they must stick with an EHR in its current format because that's what everyone is used to. Break out of that rut by looking at the latest updates to EHRs, ideally with a champion group that includes physician leaders who will view these new optimizations and evaluate how they can be applied to everyday work.

Q: Which apps and technologies do you find most helpful, and which do you think will be passing fads?

JB: Definitely voice technology that frees us to focus on the patient. Analytics dashboards and care management software will help orchestrate a coordinated effort among providers and agencies and give us views at both the population and individual patient levels. Wearables will populate our health records with useful data and improve chronic care self-management.

Perhaps the passing 'fad' will be the traditional office visit, with all the retail clinics that are popping up everywhere. And other aspects of the traditional office visit will go away, such as patients having to wait on the phone to make an appointment, or not having easy access to their own healthcare records. Everything is on the patient's schedule now, and patients are very much involved and partners in their care plan.

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