Over the past few weeks I found two companies seeking out natural and streamlined ways to connect patients with their doctors. Many of us have started using web portals for messaging–a stodgy communication method that involves logins and lots of clicking, often just for an outcome such as message “Test submitted. No further information available.” Web portals are better than unnecessary office visits or days of playing phone tag, and so are the various secure messaging apps (incompatible with one another, unfortunately) found in the online app stores. But Wellpepper and SimplifiMed are trying to bring us a bit further into the twenty-first century, through voice interfaces and natural language processing.
Wellpepper recently ascended to finalist status in the Alexa Diabetes Challenge, which encourages research into the use of Amazon.com’s popular voice-activated device, Alexa, to improve the lives of people with Type 2 Diabetes. For this challenge, Wellpepper enhanced its existing service to deliver messages over Amazon Echo and interview patients. Wellpepper’s entry in the competition is an integrated care plan called Sugarpod.
The Wellpepper platform is organized around a care plan, and covers the entire cycle of treatment, such as delivering information to patients, managing their medications and food diaries, recording information from patients in the health care provider’s EHR, helping them prepare for surgery, and more. Messages adapt to the patient’s condition, attempting to present the right tone for adherent versus non-adherent patients. The data collected can be used for analytics benefitting both the provider and the patient–valuable alerts, for instance.
It must be emphasized at the outset that Wellpepper’s current support for Alexa is just a proof of concept. It cannot be rolled out to the public until Alexa itself is HIPAA-compliant.
I interviewed Anne Weiler, founder and CEO of Wellpepper. She explained that using Alexa would be helpful for people who have mobility problems or difficulties using their hands. The prototype proved quite popular, and people seem willing to open up to the machine. Alexa has some modest affective computing features; for instance, if the patient reports feeling pain, the device will may respond with “Ouch!”
Wellpepper is clinically validated. A study of patients with Parkinson’s showed that those using Wellpepper showed 9 percent improvement in mobility, whereas those without it showed a 12% decline. Wellpepper patients adhered to treatment plans 81% of the time.
I’ll end this section by mentioning that integration EHRs offer limited information of value to Wellpepper. Most EHRs don’t yet accept patient data, for instance. And how can you tell whether a patient was admitted to a hospital? It should be in the EHR, but Sugarpod has found the information to be unavailable. It’s especially hidden if the patient is admitted to a different health care providers; interoperability is a myth. Weiler said that Sugarpod doesn’t depend on the EHR for much information, using a much more reliable source of information instead: it asks the patient!
SimplifiMed is a chatbot service that helps clinics automate routine tasks such as appointments, refills, and other aspects of treatment. CEO Chinmay A. Singh emphasized to me that it is not an app, but a natural language processing tool that operates over standard SMS messaging. They enable a doctor’s landline phone to communicate via text messages and route patients’ messages to a chatbot capable of understanding natural language and partial sentences. The bot interacts with the patients to understand their needs, and helps them accomplish the task quickly. The result is round-the-clock access to the service with no waiting on the phone a huge convenience to busy patients.
SimplifiMed also collects insurance information when the patient signs up, and the patient can use the interface to change the information. Eventually, they expect the service to analyze patient’s symptom in light of data from the EHR and help the patient make the decision about whether to come in to the doctor.
SMS is not secure, but HIPAA does not get violated because the patient can choose what to send to the doctor, and the chatbot’s responses contain no personally identifiable information. Between the doctor and the SimplifiMed service, data is sent in encrypted form. Singh said that the company built its own natural language processing engine, because it didn’t want to share sensitive patient data with an outside service.
Due to complexity of care, insurance requirements, and regulations, a doctor today needs support from multiple staff members: front desk, MA, biller, etc. MACRA and value-based care will increase the burden on staff without providing the income to hire more. Automating routine activities adds value to clinics without breaking the bank.
Earlier this year I wrote about another company, HealthTap, that had added Alexa integration. This trend toward natural voice interfaces, which the Alexa Diabetes Challenge finalists are also pursuing, along with the natural language processing that they and SimplifiMed are implementing, could put health care on track to a new era of meeting patients where they are now. The potential improvements to care are considerable, because patients are more likely to share information, take educational interventions seriously, and become active participants in their own treatment.