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Now We’re Talking

Speech technologies are moving far beyond call centers

By Drew Robb
October 2, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - In this era of high-tech medicine, computers can be found everywhere from the medication trolley to the operating room, but busy practitioners are often not in a position to use keyboards and mice. Sometimes the better option is to use a sophisticated interface that has evolved over millions of years — the human voice.

“A lot of environments in the hospital are hands-free, and some are eyes-free,” says Dr. Redmond Burke, chief of cardiovascular surgery at Miami Children’s Hospital. “When I am looking at a baby’s heart, I can’t look up at the monitor or enter data into the patient database.”

Dr. Burke and the department’s head of IT, Jeffrey White, are working with IBM and Teges Corp. in Coral Gables, Fla., to develop a voice-based operating-room interface to the hospital’s iRounds patient database from Teges.

A surgeon using Smith & Nephew's voice interface system to control operating room equipment.
A surgeon using Smith & Nephew's voice interface system to control operating room equipment.
At the start of a surgery, the com-puter reads out the patient’s name, diagnosis and the procedure to be performed. The system then informs the surgical staff when it’s time to perform actions such as giving the patient the next dose of anesthetic, reducing the chance of errors.

The doctor can also dictate information into the patient’s medical record during surgery and link a verbal description with a photo taken during the procedure, rather than have to remember the details later. This voice data is synchronized with all the feeds coming from the patient monitoring and photographic equipment, providing a more exact record of what occurred during the operation.

“This system meshes perfectly with our goal of constantly looking for technology that would enhance our performance and reduce medical errors,” says Dr. Burke. “I want all decisions to be based on accurate data.”

Driven by a combination of advancing voice-recognition technology, adoption of standards such as Voice-XML, increased processing power and networks capable of supporting voice applications, organizations are finding new ways to use voice interfaces to improve customer service, enhance security and boost employee productivity.

In addition, voice mails and teleconferences will soon become just one more type of data to be stored, replayed and searched as easily as a text document. Not yet up to the level of the starship Enterprise’s onboard system (though Dr. Burke does activate his interface by saying “computer”), the technology is rapidly approaching that level of pervasiveness and integration with other systems.

Dr. Redmond Burke, Chief of Cardiovascular Surgery, Miami Children's Hospital
Dr. Redmond Burke, Chief of Cardiovascular Surgery, Miami Children's Hospital
Although it’s only starting to find widespread adoption, the concept of machine-based speech recognition is far from new.

“Voice technology continues to be an evolution,” says Richard Cox, vice president of IP and voice services research at AT&T Laboratories. “Speech recognition is never perfect, but people are learning what they can do with it and how to work around its shortcomings.”


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