• Travis Tingey, Digital Marketing Manager, Access, Commercialisation & Communications, ICON plc

The industry impact of voice recognition, tech trend of the decade

The idea of talking with a computer has been in the popular imagination for decades, and only in the last few years are we seeing science fiction become reality. With every smartphone today now shipping with either Siri or Google Assistant, voice assistants are becoming ubiquitous. Meanwhile, smart speakers like the Amazon Echo with Alexa are becoming the hubs for smart homes. As the buzz around this technology increases, our digital team is asked more and more, “What’s the deal with voice assistants and can we offer this to our clients?”

Voice assistants and skills are actually a convergence of multiple cutting-edge technologies that include artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing, and cloud computing. What makes the technology remarkable is how it is changing the dynamic between people and computers: instead of making people understand how computers work, we’re now making the computers understand us.

Where does voice technology stand today?

According to Microsoft’s whitepaper on voice technology, the 2019 Voice report[i], released this April:

  • 72% of their survey respondents have reported using digital assistants
  • Over 66% of respondents who have used digital assistants reported using them weekly, and 19% use them daily
  • By 2020, 75% of homes will own smart speakers

Microsoft cites the diffusion of innovations theory by E.M. Rogers that seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread. Microsoft’s survey would position voice technology in the “early majority” phase of its adoption lifecycle. This is a pivotal stage as we are seeing the technology cross over “the chasm” where other technologies have failed to gain enough market shares to go mainstream.

Companies like Amazon and Google are responsible for driving the speed of innovation. These platforms abstract away the complexity of Artificial Intelligence and provide a simplified interface to create a new voice skill or chatbot.

Where does Pharma fit into the picture?

Last year, our digital team decided to investigate how ICON could potentially deliver an Alexa skill prototype to see how our group could leverage these services and provide new offerings for our clients. Our prototype took a standard DSM-IV screener for postpartum depression and built an Alexa skill that could dictate questions and tally the results. The seed of the idea was that a skill like this could be used by a patient either at home or within the context of a physician’s office while waiting for the doctor to enter the exam room.

As a proof-of-concept, our Alexa skill performed its task well. However, the top question asked when providing a demo was, “What about protecting patient data?” Unfortunately, Amazon’s platform was missing a critical component to ensure PPI and HIPAA compliance. However, in early April this year, Amazon announced six new HIPAA-compliant Alexa healthcare skills that are publicly available[ii]. The launch of the six skills came out of an invitation-only pilot program where Amazon worked with industry-leading healthcare providers, payers, and pharmacy benefits managers, including the following:

  • Boston Children’s Hospital created a skill for their Enhanced Recovery After Surgery (ERAS) program where parents and caregivers of children in the ERAS program can provide their care teams updates on recovery progress and receive information regarding their post-op appointments
  • Cigna Health Today created a skill that allows users to manage their health improvement goals and increase opportunities for earning personalized wellness incentives
  • Express Scripts members can check status of or receive notification for their home delivery prescriptions

Amazon expects to open up the HIPAA-enabled environment to other developers in the future, and these companies are the innovators in adopting voice assistant technology within the healthcare industry.

Trust is the biggest hurdle ahead

Despite all the advancement and adoption, there are significant concerns over privacy and trusting the tech giants that are making this technology a reality. Microsoft found in their survey that:

  • 52% felt their personal information or data is not secure
  • 41% had concerns about devices actively listening and/or recording
  • 14% of respondents actually took the time to handwrite that they did not trust the company behind the voice assistant

This points to significant trust issues, especially considering that the top uses of voice technology are simply playing music and checking the weather. Even after Amazon is able to provide compliant environments, there is still some time before most people will trust Alexa with some of the most private information in their lives. There will also be some time before legal teams are reassured that the technology can provide adequate solutions for challenges like adverse event reporting.

At the end of the day, these are not new problems, as every technology brings issues of uncertainty. Evidence shows that this technology is here to stay—we’ll just have to wait for the rest of the world to catch up.


[i] C. Olson, K. Kemery, ‘2019 Voice report: Consumer adoption of voice technology and digital assistants’, Microsoft, https://about.ads.microsoft.com/en-us/insights/2019-voice-report, (accessed 2 August 2019)

[ii] R. Jiang, ‘Introducing New Alexa Healthcre Skills’, Amazon Alexa, https://developer.amazon.com/blogs/alexa/post/ff33dbc7-6cf5-4db8-b203-99144a251a21/introducing-new-alexa-healthcare-skills, (accessed 2 August 2019)

Meet the Author

Travis Tingey - Digital Marketing Manager, Access, Commercialisation & Communications, ICON plc

Travis Tingey

Digital Marketing Manager, Access, Commercialisation & Communications, ICON plc

As digital marketing manager in ICON’s commercialisation and outcomes creative and digital services, Travis oversees the strategy, planning, organization and execution of digital offerings to pharma, biotech and medical device clients, delivering customized content for omnichannel solutions. He joined ICON in 2012 and has extensive experience as a print, web and user experience designer, as well as a full-service web developer.