How Siri could revolutionize the 911 system

Emergency Call

In health care we face numerous challenges. One that is being tackled by the FCC, Department of Justice and the Department of Transportation is the limited nature of our emergency 911 system. Currently, if one is dialing from a cellphone, chances are that 911 cannot automatically find their location. And the only way to contact 911 is the traditional way — by telephone.

All of that is about to change. Next Generation 911 will allow for communications to be made by voice, video or text. Location will automatically be appended to voice calls, saving time and confusion when the caller doesn’t know where they’re location is — or isn’t able to verbally communicate it.

As someone who analyzes health policy (with a focus on long-term services and supports), I believe that Siri, Apple’s (s AAPL) recently introduced natural language voice technology, has the potential to change not just our 911 system, but also to be one of the biggest consumer-facing technologies in health care that we’ve seen in decades.

Emergency health care today

Imagine this scenario: an elderly person is having a cardiac event. She is having trouble breathing and is unable to complete a sentence. Dialing 911 is possible, but if the caller is unable to narrate the condition, first responders would still be in the dark until they arrive.

Even after they do arrive, information still eludes them: some critical — including prior medical history, current medications and allergic reactions to medicines — and some logistical, such as health insurance and next of kin.

The future: A Siri-enabled 911

Siri’s main features – its ability to understand natural language and its quick and contextual deep search, information retrieval and task completion – could drastically change all this.

Once the word “emergency” is spoken to Siri, a range of beneficial activity could commence. First, the phone could video call 911 utilizing Skype or a similar VoIP video service. This would allow first responders to have a much better context of the emergency at hand. Armed with a live video and audio feed of the event, visual cues could assist the first responders as they deconstruct the problem. Second, Siri could send the GPS location of the caller.

Third, an app could automatically transmit critical information to the nearest hospital. First Choice Healthcare already has an app that gathers this information – primary care physician, current medications and any drug allergies – for a patient heading to the ER. Depending on the patient’s physician, it’s possible that the patient’s entire electronic health record (EHR) loaded into the app (or otherwise shared with authorized medical personnel) as well.

Lastly, Siri could send a text or email to the chosen next of kin, letting them know that an emergency has transpired and their family member is being transported to the closest hospital (with the address included).

That may sound a bit out of place considering Siri can’t even dial 911 right now. But the reason for that is simple: Apple hasn’t instituted a way of authenticating that a call is real and not a prank. However with video and the additional information appended to the call (again, including location), the chances of a prank dial are miniscule.

Now compare the two pictures. Which patient has a better chance of surviving the cardiac event? More than 300,000 people die from sudden cardiac events each year in the U.S. A large portion of these are preventable, not only due to lifestyle changes but also, in part, because of the nature of the emergency response and the preparation on the part of the individual. These are both areas where Siri, along with Next Generation 911, could play a fascinating role.

Siri beyond 911

But it’s not just emergency care that could be transformed with Siri. a few other uses also come to mind. Such challenges include home health monitoring and assistance.

Millions of elderly adults are living at home and are unable to fully complete needed daily tasks. They may receive some assistance for a portion of the day from a licensed health care professional, but many still only have a family member or friend stop by and assist. Regardless of what kind of help they get, after the help leaves, they may struggle to remember when to take prescribed medication and treatments, they could forget doctors’ appointments, and they may not be able to keep their family fully in the loop (until the next visit or major event happens). Worst of all, they are more susceptible to injury or worse when a medical emergency transpires.

Siri and the convergence of disparate tools

There are numerous gadgets geared toward this population. But not only are they pricey, they are also far less personal and much harder to use than Siri. Siri requires holding down the home button (the only button available on the face of an iPhone) and speaking. Who couldn’t remember to do that?

At the tap of a button, Siri will be able to set and vocalize reminders for when to take pills, can initiate video check-ups with family and care providers, and can begin a smooth chain reaction of events that would otherwise require far more time and energy to do — two things our elderly, chronically ill population have the least of.

This transition to home health care will only become more common as states look to pivot from providing the bulk of the care in institutions to care being provided in homes and communities. People not only are happier when they live at home but they also live longer, feel better, and react better to treatments. If that were not enough, institutional care is far too costly. Long-term services currently account for, on average, “one-third of state Medicaid budgets,” and 58 percent of it is spent on institutional care, according to Lewin Consulting, a preeminent health consulting firm (PDF download).

Clearly it won’t just be Siri alone in this revolution of health care. Many more services will be created, and many more similar innovations are on the horizon. But every revolution needs its leader, and Siri is undoubtedly it.

John S. Wilson is a health policy analyst and editor of PolicyDiary, a weekly health policy blog. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter: @johnswilson1