Making voice assistants accessible to older patients


Prototyped voice competence will be used to examine the feasibility of using voice assistants for Momentary Ecological Assessment (MAE). The skill can run on different devices, including user’s voice only (ab), voice-first speakers (cd), user’s connected smartphone (ef), and watch ( gh). Credit: University of California – San Diego

Voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri have tremendous potential to help people manage their health as they age. Using these hands-free and eye-opening tools, patients could book appointments, speak with clinicians, receive medication reminders, and perform other tasks. Unfortunately, current devices weren’t designed for older patients, or even for healthcare.

Now, researchers at UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute, the Human-centered eXtended Intelligence Research Lab, and other programs in UC San Diego’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering and Department of Medicine are examining about whether older people are using (or not using) this technology and how it can be improved. Their project is called Voice Assistant for Quality of Life and Healthcare Improvement in Aging Populations, or VOLI, and the resulting voice assistant is being tested in homes starting this month as part of a study of feasibility.

“Voice assistants have become ubiquitous and could really improve the well-being of older people,” said VOLI principal investigator Emilia Farcas, associate researcher at the Qualcomm Institute. “There are a lot of services and products out there, but their adoption is really questionable because you can’t just develop something and distribute it and hope that it will be used.”

Technological barriers

Farcas, co-researcher Nadir Weibel, professor of computer science and engineering who heads the Human-centered eXtended Intelligence Research Lab, and his colleagues assessed the many barriers that reduce efficiency. In an article presented at the 23rd ACM SIGACCESS International Conference on Computers and Accessibility (ASSETS’21), the team explored the different issues that older people face when using voice assistants.

“We tried to connect with the real life of the elderly,” the computer science and engineering doctorate said. student Chen Chen, first author on the paper. “We wanted to identify their day-to-day life and healthcare management routines – contacting doctors, scheduling appointments, recording their vital signs and submitting them through MyChart (UC San Diego’s electronic health record system ) – and we’ve identified some of the issues they face. “

The team interviewed 16 people aged 68 to 90, two geriatricians and three nurses to understand how virtual assistants can be useful and where they are insufficient. They discovered that today’s devices are poorly designed to handle most healthcare needs.

Monitoring treatment adherence is just one example. Sometimes patients forget to take their medication and make the problem worse by taking urgent medication whenever they remember, which can lead to poor results. Throughout the study, patients described the functions they wanted.

“I have to weigh myself every day and take my blood pressure and my sugar and keep it all low,” said one study participant. “And my friend said it would be a good thing for me to be able to ask Alexa to keep this information and then just be able to upload it to MyChart instead of me typing it all in for the doctors.”

New designs, new devices

The VOLI team envisions more user-friendly and useful devices to better support older patients. Health-focused voice assistants could prevent emergency room visits and hospitalizations, generally improve quality of life, and act as additional pairs of eyes and ears for affected clinicians and family members.

“We have to think about these systems from a more holistic perspective,” Weibel said. “The patient may be the only one actually talking to the device, but we also need to consider clinicians and their families. What are their needs and how can we support them? “

The group is custom designing their own voice assistants and plans to place them in homes this month. This feasibility study will assess the effectiveness of the technology and provide feedback to continuously refine it. VOLI will initially register 10 participants, then increase to 50. Each participant will receive two devices to test the effectiveness of the assistant with and without a screen.

“This will be an iterative project, during which we will test new designs in patients’ homes and see how they work,” said Farcas. “We can then use that information to redesign devices to make them more efficient and provide better value to patients, doctors and their families.

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More information:
Chen Chen et al, Understanding Barriers and Designing Opportunities to Improve Health Care and Quality of Life for Older People Using Voice Assistants, The 23rd ACM SIGACCESS International Conference on Computers and Accessibility (2021). DOI: 10.1145 / 3441852.3471218

Provided by the University of California – San Diego

Quote: Making voice assistants accessible to elderly patients (2021, November 4) retrieved November 4, 2021 from

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