Posted: 11 Sep. 2018 6 min. read

From diagnosing symptoms to assisting clinicians, digital assistants are plugging into health care

By Steve Burrill, vice chairman, US health care leader, Deloitte LLP

Fifty years ago, five scientists set off for Jupiter aboard the Discovery One in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. While humans haven’t yet embarked on interplanetary exploration, some of the predictions laid out in the movie turned out to be eerily accurate. Astronauts lived aboard an orbiting space station equipped with videoconferencing booths, used tablet-like computers, and relied on a voice-activated digital assistant. But after the HAL 9000 took control of the spaceship and turned against the crew, movie audiences (and the public) grew leery of talking devices equipped with artificial intelligence (AI).

That trepidation appears to have faded. AI-enabled, voice-activated digital assistants are now the fastest-growing consumer technology, according to, a technology market analyst firm. More than 38 million of these devices (e.g., Amazon Echo, Echo dot, Google Home) are expected to reach the US consumer market this year.1 In kitchens and bedrooms around the world, voice-activated digital assistants regularly recite grocery lists, play music and news, control lights, and adjust thermostats.

Digital assistants have also become popular tools for people who want to track their health and fitness, according to the results of our recent survey of health care consumers. In February and March 2018, the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions conducted an online survey of 4,530 American adults. The survey seeks to understand consumer interest, preferences, and attitudes around technology-enabled health.

Millennials are comfortable talking health with digital assistants

Among consumers who use technology for health care, 75 percent told us they rely on digital assistants for reminders or alerts about medications, while 72 percent of respondents in this group use digital assistants to monitor their health. Not surprisingly, millennials (i.e., people born between 1982 and 1997) are more comfortable with the AI-enabled technology when compared to older groups.

More than 80 percent of millennials say they use digital assistants to monitor health, and 74 percent use the technology to receive medical alerts. While fewer seniors use digital assistants, our survey results identified a segment of “tech-savvy seniors” who are comfortable going online to shop, book travel, and manage personal finances. They are more inclined than their contemporaries to be interested in using technology for their health care needs.

Infographic monitor health issues

Twenty-five percent of tech-savvy seniors said they used technology to monitor health issues, compared to three percent of seniors who are not technologically savvy. We also found that more than 60 percent of tech-savvy seniors are interested in using technology for accessing, storing, or transmitting personal health information or records to clinicians, compared to only 19 percent of non tech-savvy seniors.

What role can digital assistants play in health care?

While digital assistants continue to get smarter, they are still in their infancy. The possibilities in health care are virtually limitless, according to our research on the digital hospital of the future.Integrating AI with digital assistants will likely become more advanced in the near future. In the home, for example, a person might say, “I’m in pain.” In response, an AI-enabled digital assistant might be able to access the patient’s electronic health record and check the patient’s recent history, evaluate vital signs, or even scan for environmental factors. It could also connect the person to a family member or nurse.2

Last spring, WebMD announced that certain Amazon devices would have access to WebMD’s digital library of health content, which patients and caregivers can use to answer questions about symptoms, conditions, and treatment options.

A growing number of hospitals and health systems are using voice-activated tools to assist patients and clinicians. Some hospitals are bringing the traditional nurse call button into the 21st century by asking patients to use a digital assistant to request assistance—or state their meal preferences. This use of technology can maximize the staff’s time and extend other resources as well, according to our research.

Four hospitals where digital assistants are booting up

Here are a few examples of how digital assistants are being used in hospitals and health systems:

  • Advocate Aurora Health: The health system—which operates 27 hospitals and has more than 500 outpatient locations in Illinois and Wisconsin—is piloting a “digital concierge” that uses natural language processing to answer patient questions about symptoms. Advocate Aurora’s digital division collaborated with an external vendor to develop the tool to understand natural language and process a patient’s answers to a set of questions. It can diagnose symptoms and suggest a treatment plan, including whether the patient should go to urgent care, make an appointment with a primary-care doctor, or stay home. It can also help schedule appointments.The digital concierge knows about 5,000 health conditions and will learn more as more people use it.
  • Boston Children’s Hospital: The hospital is piloting an app that could help physicians comply with pre-surgery protocols and procedures. The hospital also recently launched an app that answers questions about common illnesses and medication doses.4
  • The Mayo Clinic: The voice-activated Ask Mayo First Aid tool launched about a year ago at the Mayo Clinic’s home in Rochester, Minnesota. A new health-guidance “skill” added to the Amazon Alexa platform gives the device the ability to offer self-care instructions for dozens of health-related issues.5
  • Thomas Jefferson University Hospital: The Philadelphia health care system is working with IBM Watson to design hospital "smart rooms" where voice-activated commands can be used to dim or brighten lights, adjust the temperature, turn on music, or close blinds in a patient’s room.

Consumers have grown accustomed to getting information when, where, and how they want it—and this includes quick answers to their health care questions. Virtual assistants can already answer routine questions about diagnoses, expected recovery experiences and times, and daily medication schedules. At some point, virtual assistants could become data repositories for a patient’s medical history, test results, consultation times, appointment schedules, and even stories from other patients who have had similar diagnoses.

Five decades ago, the omnipresent (but fictional) HAL 9000 set certain expectations for a future inhabited by AI-enabled talking computers. But real digital assistants could become important tools for patients and clinicians. These devices of the 21st century aren’t malevolent—and would most certainly open the pod-bay doors if asked.

1. mHealth Intelligence, March 14, 2017, mHealth Takes a Closer Look at Digital Assistants
2. Healthcare IT News, February 6, 2018, Alexa, Call a Nurse: Special Report
3. Microsoft press release:
4. CNBC, June 6, 2017, hospitals are looking for the killer amazon alexa app
5. Mayo Clinic press release, September 15, 2017
6. Thomas Jefferson Hospital press release, October 5, 2016


Return to the Health Forward home page to discover more insights from our leaders.

Get in touch