What If Your Own Voice Could Monitor and Diagnose Your Health?
We often hear people say, “you don’t sound well”, and for good reason. Some diseases can, in fact, subtly and abruptly alter our speech. For example, flare-ups of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) can cause an uncharacteristically hoarse voice, slurred speech, and shortness of breath. These vocal changes often begin well before the patient notices any other symptoms.
What if we could harness technology to continuously monitor our health by analyzing our speech patterns? Or what if simply talking on the phone or asking Siri about the weather could alert your doctor of a potential problem? Well, it turns out, this future is quickly becoming a reality.
Recognizing the tremendous potential of voice as a diagnostics and monitoring tool in healthcare, aMoon recently facilitated a merger and led an investment in two healthtech companies, Beyond Verbal and HealthyMize, to create a new merged entity called Vocalis Health. Vocalis is a pioneering startup that detects vocal biomarkers (VBs) from free speech. It aims to become the world leader in the VB space, a market that’s set to grow significantly in the next few years.
This investment is not only part of aMoon’s strategy to support best-in-class startups and disruptive technologies, but also demonstrates the powerful role we believe that VCs can play in helping and incentivizing complimentary startups to merge and become industry leaders.
Merging Voice and Health
Vocal biomarkers are ubiquitous speech-derived features (such as pitch, volume, formants, etc.) that are collected passively and remotely via a phone, digital app, or smart speaker. These features are independent of the content of the speech and thus language agnostic. The voice recordings are then processed through algorithms that can detect a variety of voice-effected health conditions: including respiratory, cognitive, neurological, and cardiovascular conditions. The Vocalis technology flags unusual speech patterns to screen for diseases and track existing disorders.
Vocalis’ technology not only detects the formation of health conditions, but also monitors condition deterioration – a particularly important feature in providing value-based care to chronic patients. Readmission is a costly occurrence for both the patient and the healthcare provider. With the current shift towards value-based care, healthcare providers and payers are increasingly looking to invest and improve in preventative outpatient monitoring.
Vocalis’ technology has the potential to be applied in a myriad of different ways. Pharmaceutical companies could use VB data to examine the use and impact of their products: such as tracking an individual’s inhaler use to better understand how often they are using the device and whether the prescribed dose is having the desired impact. Outside of healthcare, this VB database could potentially be applied to processes such as underwriting insurance policies over the phone or screening automotive drivers for intoxication. The possibilities are endless.
Reducing Healthcare Costs
The Vocalis platform triages patients in real time and provides actionable clinical insights for medical teams. Early detection of flare-ups is crucial data and can lead to significant reductions in readmission rates. For instance, the current practice for catching and diagnosing flare-ups in chronic patients requires either the nursing staff to call and attempt to accurately triage the patient remotely, or the patient must recognize the symptoms and contact their doctor. Unfortunately, once a flare-up has begun and the symptoms become noticeable, the patient usually must be readmitted to the hospital. This procedure is labor intensive, expensive, and inefficient.
The Vocalis solution, on the other hand, occurs earlier in the process, is scalable, and cost effective. It objectively flags patients in need of attention which enables early detection and intervention. Once flagged, the patient’s medical team can remotely adjust medications and avoid unnecessary hospitalization. COPD flare-ups, for example, can be predicted several days in advance: leading to significantly fewer medical emergencies and hospital readmissions. Remote monitoring of COPD patients has been shown to produce annual cost savings of $2,931 per person (vs. control group) (1).
Passive monitoring through voice also has clear advantages from an adherence perspective, which is a constant issue when it comes to anything involving wearable devices or self-administered medications. The Vocalis system makes patient monitoring easier by operating quietly in the background; requiring minimal patient interaction. No need to wear anything, no need to remember to log anything, simply use your phone as you normally would and the system will do the rest.
When Two Decide to Join Forces, Their Single Voice Becomes Much Louder
Our investment in Vocalis is unique because of the active role aMoon played in proposing and facilitating its merger. Mergers are never easy, whether between early stage startups or mature multi-billion dollar organizations, but they can be of tremendous value. Startups that do not yet have legacy systems or entrenched work procedures stand to benefit significantly from such mergers. By pooling their combined resources and talents together, the merged entity can more effectively target the market and offer a broader suite of solutions to the same clients that they would have otherwise pursued individually. VCs are in the unique position to truly understand the ins and outs of each company, objectively assess potential synergies, and play the role of “matchmaker” after winning the trust of each company individually. Naturally, nothing will progress without having the leadership teams in place with the right vision, accommodating attitude, and ability to navigate many delicate issues. Equally important, the investors of each startup must buy into the process and support it. We are proud to be the driving force behind the Vocalis merger and hope more startups will be willing to explore this option.
Voice is set to reshape many aspects of the healthcare industry and offers an exciting new way to improve patient care around the world. Healthcare is going vocal. Keep your ears open.
(1) Miguel, Kristen & Smith, Joanna & Lewin, Gill. (2013). Telehealth Remote Monitoring for Community-Dwelling Older Adults with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.