Is Epic Poised To Own The Healthcare Voice Assistant Market? Not Quite.

Given its position atop the EHR industry, the things Epic does can have an outsized influence on the healthcare world. Will such be the case when Epic debuts its new voice assistant at HIMSS20? I’d argue that this time, perhaps, not so much.

According to a piece appearing in Healthcare IT News, Epic is debuting an assistant called “Hey, Epic!” At the upcoming HIMSS20 show. The assistant, which Epic describes as ambient voice technology, works in much the same way as the now-ubiquitous Alexa assistant bundled with a wide range of Amazon smart speakers.

In this case, the device and smart assistant are set up to get information for clinicians and help them take action. The clinicians will be able to say “Hey Epic” to summon the assistant, which is reportedly in use already by almost 20 organizations. Hey Epic can place orders, called members of a patient’s care team, and create reminders, as well as performing other emerging functions, according to Sean Bina, vice president of access and patient engagement.

While this may be the first time some readers have encountered the healthcare voice assistant niche, Epic has actually been exploring it for a while. Plus, MEDITECH announced their voice assistant efforts with Nuance and Google back in 2018 and Cerner is working on a similar solution as well.

Epic announced back in September 2018 that providers using its EHR would now have access to voice-enabled clinical workflows. These workflows were to be powered by virtual assistant technology by Nuance, a well-established maker of medical dictation software. At the time, much of what Epic is unveiling at the massive health IT show was already in play, including the ability to conversationally access patient schedules, look up patient health information, and view lab results, medication lists and visit summaries, though these functions were apparently only available via mobile apps.

Since that time, a growing number of providers have begun to play with voice assistant technology.  For example, in early 2019 I learned about EVA, a voice assistant under development at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which allows clinicians to query its Epic EHR directly receive voice responses to queries about test results, make orders and more.

Just a few weeks later I learned about a patient-facing project using this technology, in which Cedars-Sinai was deploying smart rooms equipped with Alexa-powered Amazon Echo devices. Patients in the 100 rooms equipped with technology will be able to use the devices to communicate with nurses by making such statements as “Alexa, tell my nurse I need to get up to use the restroom.” The hospital’s Aiva platform then routes the patient request to the right caregiver, which could be a nurse, clinical partner, manager or administrator.

If you haven’t seen the company Orbita, they’ve been helping to enable conversational AI across a wide variety of healthcare situations. While their platform can help voice enable any health IT solution, they also have some of their own voice enabled health solutions. One that they acquired from Deloitte is called OrbitaAssist. It’s a voice-enabled virtual beside assistant that helps facilitate easy communication between patients and nurses. Developed initially for Australia and integrated with ServiceNow, it provides a pretty sophisticated voice assistant and workflow solution at the bedside.

While there are probably many other examples of such experiments, somehow they didn’t come to my attention over the past year. However, this has clearly changed. According to the vendor, its Hey Epic! technology alone is already in use within almost 20 organizations, which makes its current announcement far more interesting than it was without actual deployments to discuss. Although, I still wonder how much usage these 20 deployments are actually getting. It’s one thing to be deployed and still another to be useful and used by the doctors.

Still, what I’m wondering at this point is whether Epic’s giant market footprint — one could call it the IBM of the health IT world — will permit to capture a large chunk of the emerging voice assistant market as well. Put another way, I’m wondering whether Epic can, Amazon-like, leverage its existing market power to slide into a secondary market and crush it.

For what it’s worth, my guess is that no, it can’t. Though it may hope to push the healthcare voice assistant market into orbit around its EHR, I’m not convinced that it’s in a position to do that. Despite its partnership with Nuance (along with vendor M*Modal), it doesn’t necessarily have a structural advantage sufficient to push out emerging healthcare voice assistant vendors like Orbita.

In short, there’s still a lot of ways that the infrastructure about healthcare voice assistants could develop, and while the demo of Hey Epic! will probably be pretty cool, it’s far from the final word on the subject.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.