With Peter Durlach
Nuance Communications, Chief Strategy Officer
In this Digital Health Wire Q&A, we sat down with Nuance Communications Chief Strategy Officer Peter Durlach to discuss what it takes to create great patient experiences and the evolving role of artificial intelligence in healthcare.
Durlach was an early pioneer in voice-enabled technology before joining Nuance and establishing its healthcare business in 2006. He’s since guided Nuance’s strategy across virtual assistants, imaging AI, and patient engagement, while overseeing Microsoft’s $19.7B acquisition of the company in 2022.
Let’s kick things off with a birds eye view of Nuance’s healthcare business. Can you share a bit about the overarching strategy?
One of the best ways to think about the Nuance platform is as a conversational AI or ambient technology stack that can be highly tuned for specific B2B problems.
The healthcare division is very focused on creating solutions that drive meaningful outcomes in one of four buckets: 1) can we improve the clinician experience; 2) can we improve financial performance; 3) can we improve clinical quality; 4) can we improve the patient experience.
Zooming in on the patient experience side, can you walk us through Nuance’s services within that bucket?
People have been talking about improving the patient experience for decades, but investment in the space didn’t really take off until a couple years before COVID and only accelerated under the moniker “digital front door.” The reason it took off is because so many new competitors are trying to siphon business away from traditional providers.
When we saw this starting to unfold, we brought over the same underlying technology that’s been providing great consumer experiences in areas like retail, banking, and airlines, then built an application layer on top of that stack that tackles common problems for every provider.
To give one example, the Access Center is more important than ever as patients forget their portal passwords or want to log in to a telehealth visit, yet the staffing shortage is making it so that none of these providers have the ability to keep up. We provide the technology that helps them improve the experience without driving up staffing costs.
How do you think about steering the direction of Nuance’s healthcare business from a roadmap and prioritization perspective?
We start by thinking about the technology platform, then figuring out what apps to build on top of it. Nearly every provider is trying to consolidate vendors, not only for themselves but for their patients.
From the patient’s point of view, it’s a terrible experience if you phone a call center on one system, then interact with a chatbot on another, then receive an SMS from a third vendor. It’s also terrible for the provider to have to build the back end to all these separate systems or deploy these patient journeys across completely disparate platforms.
We do a lot of market research with clients where we ask about their biggest pain points, and one of the things we find time and time again is that the 80-20 rule holds true. 20% of potential applications can solve 80% of the pain. We’re focusing on that 20%.
What are some of the other common pain points that you’ve seen on the provider side during your market research?
I think that one of the biggest challenges in healthcare is that a lot of places still have silos between different areas of whatever they’re calling “digital.” The website, the voice side, the SMS. These silos get in the way of a comprehensive strategy.
You can’t have the people who manage the call center thinking about workflows and technology independently from the people worried about SMS and the website. Some organizations are starting to put these silos under the same leader, but even that isn’t necessarily a slam dunk.
Patient-centric health systems realize that all of these modalities are just different ways to communicate the same information, and it’s the connected journey that’s important.
AI has been enjoying a moment in the sun with ChatGPT and Microsoft’s investment. How do you see these types of large language models impacting healthcare?
First, let me just say that these new models are truly breathtaking. They’re mind blowing. Does that mean they’re perfect? No. Is there a fundamental technology shift happening? 100%.
In healthcare, the bar is a lot higher because the model’s mistakes can kill people. That means we’re probably going to see non-medical decision making use cases like prior authorizations or patient engagement proliferate quickly because a mistake isn’t going to kill somebody.
On the clinical side, it’s going to be far more complicated because the downside is much greater, plus you have the FDA in the middle of it. How do these models fit into regulatory guidelines? What’s the indication for use? Can you explain the black box? I truly believe it’s transformative tech, but it won’t suddenly solve every problem without some bumps along the road.
What do you think have been the keys to success for Nuance and for anyone looking to transform the healthcare industry going forward?
The single most important thing for us might sound a little cliche, but it’s the fact that we’re laser focused on the outcomes we deliver for our clients. That’s the anchor point for everything we do.
If you’re a company that’s building something in healthcare, you need to be able to move a metric that your clients care about and that they’re willing to invest in. Once you have that metric, you shouldn’t be wasting time on anything else.
When you ask people what problems they solve, a lot of the time they’ll show you the tech and do a demo. It’s the classic tech company thing to do. They should be thinking about the client problem, the metric they can impact, and an economically viable way to make that happen.
That focus is the biggest key to our success, and it can really help crystalize the mission of anyone else in healthcare.
For more on Nuance’s Healthcare AI Solutions & Services, head over to their website.