It takes only a few seconds to click a button and open a window on a computer. But for a busy doctor sifting through patient records, those clicks can add up to extra hours spent at a computer each day completing tedious but necessary tasks.
Now, in response to doctors’ demands for more efficient software, several companies that make electronic health record systems are offering a new tool: voice-activated virtual assistants. Think Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, but for health care providers.
Westborough-based eClinicalWorks, a large vendor of electronic health records, has launched what the company calls a first-of-its kind virtual assistant, named Eva, to help doctors and other care providers more quickly find patient information.
Just like an Alexa user can stream music and ask for the weather forecast, a physician using Eva can order a prescription or ask for a patient’s medical history. Unlike Alexa, Eva is built into the computer and doesn’t use a standalone device.
“It’s a gamechanger,” said Millie Shinn, a nurse and director of clinical informatics at Hamilton Healthcare System in rural Texas, which uses eClinicalWorks software. “To say, ‘Eva, show me today’s lab,’ and it just pops up — that efficiency is huge.”
Virtual assistants are in development at other big medical software vendors, including Watertown-based athenahealth Inc. and Epic Systems Corp. of Verona, Wis., whose software is widely used by Massachusetts doctors and hospitals.
The voice-activated technology for health records is available to doctors, nurses, and other care providers. But patients potentially could benefit if they get more face time with care providers who are less burdened by their computers.
This technology is launching after huge volumes of patient information moved from paper to computers over the past several years, spurred largely by federal government incentives for the digitization of health records. The companies that made computerized record systems designed them to meet federal requirements and store large amounts of data, including patient medical histories and physician notes. But the software was not particularly user-friendly.
As providers become more selective about which software they want to use, and software companies jockey for their business, there is a new focus on making health record systems more efficient and easier to use.
At eClinicalWorks, the virtual assistant is designed to simplify common tasks. For example, if a patient calls to request a medication refill, the physician must find several pieces of information before placing the order: When was the patient last seen? What other medications is the patient taking? What do the patient’s most recent blood tests show?
Instead of requiring the doctor to search through several different windows, the virtual assistant — through one click or voice command — can save time by pulling up many pieces of relevant information on one screen.
Physicians can activate the assistant by clicking on the computer screen or saying “Hello, Eva.” When a physician asks Eva to find a patient file, the file quickly appears. Eva presents a menu of options and says, “What would you like to do?”
For patients with similar sounding names, Eva shows different options so the doctor does not confuse them. The health record also shows a head shot of the patient.
“Physicians will be able to interact with technology a lot easier — as easy as using Alexa,” said Sameer Bhat, vice president of sales and cofounder at eClinicalWorks, whose health record system is used by about 130,000 physicians. “Technology like this will really cut down the time and help them find information.”
EClinicalWorks, a privately held company, paid $155 million to settle federal allegations last May that it made false claims about its software and gave kickbacks to customers. Executives said that they took steps to address those issues and that the allegations did not slow the company’s growth.
EClinicalWorks launched its virtual assistant in December, making it a standard feature for customers who update to the latest version of the company’s software.
The market for medical software is highly competitive, and the launch of virtual assistants and other features designed to simplify software could give an edge to companies trying to pull customers from rivals.
“We’re seeing this kind of evolution in the industry toward . . . a better user experience,” said Mutaz Shegewi, research director for provider IT transformation strategies at the research firm IDC Health Insights in Framingham. “User experience is key for a vendor to sell products, and it’s key for a vendor to enjoy a successful relationship [with customers].”
Shegewi said assistants like the one designed by eClinicalWorks sound promising — but whether they will actually save doctors time remains to be seen. “If that doesn’t deliver, that’s going to be a huge disappointment,” he said.
Epic, whose software is used by many large hospital systems, is also developing a voice-activated virtual assistant and plans to test it in February before launching it broadly, the company said.
Adam Whitlatch, director of research and development at Epic, said the feature will be built into the company’s mobile application, allowing doctors to view patient information and track appointment schedules.
Technology has advanced to the point that voice-activated assistants are now possible, and simultaneously, health care providers have become more comfortable with computers, Whitlatch noted. “This is actually an ideal use case for this type of technology,” he said.
Epic’s health record software is used by several Massachusetts health systems including Partners HealthCare of Boston, Lahey Health of Burlington, and UMass Memorial Health Care of Worcester.
Many doctors and nurses have found that Epic’s system is particularly complex and tedious to use. Company officials said they consider such feedback as they develop updates to their software.
Electronic records have obvious advantages over paper records — they’re standardized and don’t need to be stored in file cabinets. But they are also a leading cause of burnout among doctors, according to a 2017 survey from the medical news website Medscape.
“Number one right now, folks are looking for work reduction,” said Kyle Armbrester, chief product officer at athenahealth, which makes patient record systems and other medical software.
Armbrester said virtual assistants are becoming “commodities” and are only as good as the systems for which they’re built. But he said the company has seen dramatic results in early tests of its new virtual assistant.
The application has helped some health care providers save hours per day on accessing, documenting, and sharing information, according to athenahealth.
To Dr. Eugenia Marcus, a pediatrician in Wellesley, the concept of voice-activated assistants sounds helpful. Marcus said medical software companies must incorporate more advice from clinicians to make their systems user-friendly.
“At this point,” she said, “most doctors are just complaining and don’t know what they can do about it.”