When I told my assistant that I was leaving practice to move into a hospital position, her immediate response was “Oh, no. I just got you trained and now you’re leaving!”  We both laughed, but she had a good point— we had “trained” each other to work as a team.

Gina, like Steven before her, was a great assistant. When people ask me about virtual assistants in the world of health information technology, I use them as the standard to measure against. They were truly assistants — they didn’t do my job for me, they made my job easier and let me concentrate on the things my education and training had prepared me for. So what did they do that made them great assistants and what skills and capabilities would I like technology to emulate?

First and foremost they communicated. There was dialogue between us. When I asked for information or asked them to perform a task they prompted me for the additional information they needed to carry out my request. This is what Gina meant by “training” me — over time my requests got more specific, more complete, and she needed to ask for more information less often. But the need for conversation was always there. So to me, this is the most important attribute of an assistant. Any virtual assistant has to be able to interpret my requests, identify what is missing, and ask for those additional inputs.

So what did I ask them to do? Not to diagnose a patient – that’s my job. I asked them for lab results – and I learned to say which labs, from when. Or had them call in a ‘script — and they nudged me if I forgot a dispense amount or a number of refills. I could ask for an ICD-9 code and they’d ask for more specific diagnosis if needed. And so on. Some things, like “Who’s my next patient,” didn’t require much clarification, but lots of things did.

As we moved to an electronic medical record (EMR), there was more I had to do for myself and less they could assist me with; this is where a voice-enabled virtual assistant shows its real potential. When dealing with a complicated problem I need to see the whole record and have all the information available to me. But simple things, such as logging into an EMR and navigating to one piece of information, or performing one function – writing a script, ordering a test, etc. –  take time that I could better spend elsewhere. So if I could use my voice as a log-in to get a result, send a ‘script, input a quick note — all  things that would make my life easier –  I’ll have more time back to spend interacting with my patients – a part of my job that no technology could ever quite measure up to.

A good virtual assistant will do what a good assistant has always done — make a job easier. And a tablet, a smart phone, or even a wristwatch device is much easier to take with me than Gina.

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Dr. Reid Coleman

About Dr. Reid Coleman

As the Chief Medical Information Officer for evidence-based medicine, Reid works to improve both the quality and safety of healthcare by implementing information technology solutions in the clinical setting. He is currently investigating the use of natural language processing (NLP) of big data sets to enhance evidence-based knowledge and clinical-decision support. Before joining Nuance, Reid practiced internal medicine on a full-time basis for 20 years. In 1998, he became medical director for a physician-hospital joint venture, and in 2001 became medical director for informatics at Lifespan, a four hospital, 1,150 bed integrated delivery system in Providence, Rhode Island. In 2010, he was ranked by Modern Healthcare Magazine as one of the “Top 25 Medical Informaticists in the U.S.,” and the following year received the Beckwith Family Award for Outstanding Teaching at Brown. Reid attended the Alpert Medical School at Brown University, where he also currently serves as an Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine. Reid moved to the Providence RI area with plans to stay for four years of college. He is still there today due to the influence of a woman, who has been his wife for the last 35 years.