Innovation Matters
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Jan 18, 2018

“Alexa, I need help.” How AI devices will enable care

Despite what a CNN headline seemed to suggest, a voice-activated device did not call the emergency services to a domestic violence incident in New Mexico – there isn’t currently a device on the market that has that capability. However, the story has caused some to start asking whether this may actually be a good idea, teaching companion devices like Amazon’s Alexa to intervene in crisis situations – particularly when a person’s health is involved.


Advocates argue that Artificial Intelligence (AI) launched health interventions that can recognize a situation and respond accordingly, without a specific request from the person in need, have potential but aren’t a complete solution in themselves. For example, a device that can recognize the signs of a person who is having a stroke and contact emergency services, without relying on the individual to call for assistance, may help get an ambulance to them faster and increase chances for positive outcomes. 

Time and again, we have found that technology does not replace the human interactions – but rather augments them to make experiences


Time and again, we have found that technology does not replace the human interactions – but rather augments them to make experiences richer.  For example, pure automation could result in emergency services being dispatched only to realize that they are not actually needed. Further, it can reduce the human-to-human connection that is central to the care of our most vulnerable populations.


At Philips Lifeline, we have a multitude of conversations with seniors every year – not to mention conversations with their care communities on their behalf.  They call when they are lonely, when they are worried or confused and of course, when they’ve had an emergency.  These emergency situations are a small fraction of the conversations our vulnerable populations want to have. Further, healthcare systems can ill afford unnecessary costs – and patients certainly don’t want the embarrassing or unnecessary stigma of an ambulance on their doorstep. 


Although systems such as Alexa sound like a great solution in theory, we see them as an enabler for care versus a replacement. Even the seemingly self-explanatory statement ‘I need help’ (if one is able to verbalize their need) provides little context as to the degree of severity of the problem, or which party. Is the person in serious medical need, or do they simply need assistance calling a loved one or care giver, or are they just lonely as we find a lot of seniors tend to be? We have found that a low percentage of seniors who call for help need actual medical help, and at present technology isn’t yet advanced enough to allow a companion system to intervene effectively. There is also the added complication that users who need help may not realize exactly what type of help they need, so it is not as simple as just activating an automatic response and sending a medical responder to their aid as this may not be needed.


This is where an intermediary service comes into play. Acting as the ‘middle man’ between the user and the responder, the service is able to decipher the requests for help and, following protocol, can help according to the individuals request. Precision in the intervention is extremely important; often sending an immediate response isn’t necessary, when a home nurse visit or a friend checking in can be equally as effective.


Such a service is already provided by Philips Lifeline, to get help to seniors who have had a fall. When the GoSafe pendant  worn by users senses a fall, the AutoAlert  feature automatically places a call for help, alerting the Lifeline Response Center. This allows a Philips Lifeline Response Associate to quickly react, assessing the situation and taking the most appropriate action. Philips Lifeline will contact a neighbor, loved one, or emergency services – and will follow up to make sure that help has arrived. 

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In this way, the intermediary service can help to ensure that people receive assistance when they need it most, even when they are unable to call for themselves, whilst averting health services from turning up when they are not necessarily needed. This additional sense of security helps to empower seniors to be more active and live independently, while feeling safer and connected; while providing their families and loved ones peace of mind, knowing that Philips Lifeline is looking out for them.


If voice command could be taught to recognize a situation where a person might need medical help and reach out to an intermediary service, this would extend their value versus simply calling 911 or calling a caregiver (who often times benefit from someone filtering calls for help). As I started, voice-activated devices are not yet ready to start intervening on our behalf, and there are many questions, both ethical and practical we need to answer before they do. It is likely that much of this capability could be worked via AI over time, however in the near term, it is essential that we carry on using humans as the first line of intervention, especially in the world of health care where the consequences of incorrect intervention could be damaging.



1 With GoSafe, coverage outside the home is provided where AT&T wireless network coverage is available.

2 AutoAlert does not detect 100% falls. If able, users should always push their button when they need help. Button signal range may vary due to differing environmental factors.

About Innovation Matters

Innovation Matters delivers news, opinions and features about healthcare, and is focused on the professionals who work within the industry, as well as Philips as a cutting-edge health technology organization. From interviews with industry giants to how-to guides and features powered by Philips data, our goal is to deliver interesting, educational and entertaining content to empower and inspire all those who work in healthcare or related industries.


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Rip Martin

Rip Martin

Business Unit Lead, Home Monitoring, Philips

Ripley leads Philips’ Lifeline products offering services and solutions within personal emergency response, medication management and health to support seniors in assisted and senior living facilities.

Prior to Philips, Ripley spent six years with the Boston Consulting Group as a Principal in the Healthcare, Industrial Goods and Strategy practices.

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