Suki CEO Punit Soni on why automated clinical documentation is just the 'tip of the iceberg' & more

Punit Soni, CEO and co-founder of Suki, an artificial intelligence, voice-enabled digital assistant for physicians, discusses how voice technology is helping decrease physician burnout as well as his predictions for how voice recognition software will affect the future clinician experience.

Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and why you first started Suki?

Punit Soni: I spent eight years at Google working on diverse areas from search to mobile apps, from social to games, as well as software management for Motorola once we acquired it. Most recently, I served as head of product for Flipkart — the largest e-commerce company in India. I often joke that after working in all these spaces, it's only logical I dabble in healthcare.

The starting point of any company is users and their problems. Technology comes later. It's key to find a constituency that has a deep problem where the solution aligns with an incoming technology trend. I found constituency in physicians. After spending several months looking at our healthcare system, one of the problems that jumped out was clinician burnout.

Q: What sparked your interest in voice recognition software for physician use?

PS: Physicians work on the most important aspect of our lives — our health. But between regulatory burden, documentation requirements and underlying technology they use, physicians are spending two to three hours a day just typing and entering data into their computers. I contend that physician burnout is one of the most critical public health issues we face today.

Couple all this with the fact that voice technology is increasingly getting commoditized and more sophisticated by the day. This trend will have the same impact on complex enterprise data and solutions — such as those in healthcare — that mobile and touch interface has had in the consumer world. But, so far, voice has only been used as a speech-to-text technology. For example, verbatim conversion of what the physician says into words.

The next generation of speech technology will understand what the physician says, understand intent and generate documentation, among other things, based on that understanding. This key difference between transcription and understanding is going to be the driver of a new kind of technology stack in healthcare — one that is assistive yet invisible, omnipresent yet unobtrusive and, importantly, all in service of the clinician. With this, clinicians will be free to focus on doing what they love, which is taking care of their patients.

Q: What are some of the ways Suki can benefit physician workflow?

PS: Today's record keeping systems in healthcare were built for back-office functions and serve an administrative purpose that can diminish the physician-patient experience. Suki is a digital assistant for physicians that starts by helping with the most onerous of their administrative tasks — clinical documentation.

The prime focus of the company is to ensure various physician workflows are streamlined and automated based on the physician-patient interaction. Physicians using Suki in clinical practice experience an overall 70 percent reduction in the amount of time spent on medical notes, but over time, it needs to do even more. Consequently, many areas like order entry, pulling up patient data as needed and prompting helpful pieces of information as the physician goes about their work have become areas of interest. Once you have the permission to be in a physician's office with an experience that helps their workflow and saves time, it becomes possible to use healthcare technology in a way that benefits both physicians and their patients.

Q: What is the most important factor that goes into designing voice recognition software?

PS: Understanding your user. I contend that one of the big reasons a powerful technology company of the order of a Google or Amazon has not emerged out of healthcare is because no one has figured out how to marry the technology chops of great engineers with clinical thought process.

The key part of designing a digital assistant is not just the technology, but an understanding of how physicians, our users, think. We must get into their head and think hard about what matters to them — which workflows are the most complex, what are the most significant stress points, where can a voice command shortcut 10 clicks to get to the desired outcome — and start from there.

The other aspect is designing a simple, easy user experience. We can't lift the burden of medical documentation and replace it with the cognitive burden of learning and remembering rigid voice commands. Our voice software needs to be obvious, flexible, thoughtful and minimalistic. We should not do one more thing that is absolutely needed till we are sure it is going to add value.

Q: What are your predictions for the future of automated clinical documentation? Where would you like to see the technology continue to advance?

PS: In a few years, key aspects of a physician's workflow that do not deal with direct patient care will be automated, allowing the physician to focus on their core work. That is just the tip of the iceberg. Physicians want to be able to walk in and ask who they are seeing next, understand the context for that interaction, pull up data on-demand, and ask technologies like Suki to pay attention when they talk to a patient. Most of their workflows will get increasingly automated, and the resulting structured data generated will create a virtuous loop that allows the physician to let go of technology and focus on patient care.

Over time, this is an opportunity to work with existing EMRs to rethink the entire health stack, such that all aspects of it are assistive, invisible and immediate. This will help physicians become more effective, but in time will seep into better patient care and outcomes.

The largest, most relevant technology company ever will be built in healthcare. And it is my prediction that automated clinical documentation will be a starting point for any effort in that direction. A direction that will lead to happier physicians, healthier patients and more efficient health systems.

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