Research finds voice assistance could improve speech for Parkinson's patients

Initial research has found that voice-assisted technology encourages positive speaking behaviours in Parkinson's patients who use it.

Speech impairment is a common condition found in patients who suffer from Parkinson's disease. However, early research between Monash University and Ulster University has uncovered that voice-assisted technologies such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa could potentially enhance early speech and language therapies to support people with speech difficulties.

The study involved a survey of 290 participants from the United Kingdom living with Parkinson's Disease, with 79% indicating that they or others had noticed changes in their speech or voice due to symptoms of their condition.

The study also showed that 90% owned a voice-assisted device, with 71% of them indicating that they use it regularly, while 31% use the technology specifically to address the needs associated with their Parkinson's disease.

Of those 166 users, nearly 55% said they sometimes, rarely, or never had to repeat themselves when using a voice-assisted technology. When asked about the speech changes since they started using their devices, 25% of participants noticed they do not have to repeat themselves as frequently and 15% perceived their speech to be clearer.

Some of the specific feedback from participants included using voice-assisted technology, which encouraged positive speaking behaviours such as "speaking slowly and clearly" and "talking louder".  

"Voice-assisted technology has been embraced by many people and households, from both a general day-to-day perspective but also now, as we have seen from the research, in the form of assisting people with speech difficulties," Ulster university speech and language therapy lecturer Orla Duffy said.

"Voice-assisted technologies now have the capability to support future therapies and act as useful tools for speech and language therapists, with the added benefit of already being present in the patient's home."

While the researchers admitted further research would be necessary to trial out-of-the-box voice-assisted technologies, they noted the initial findings signalled a step in the right direction.

Roisin McNaney, senior lecturer in the Department of Human Centred Computing at Monash University's Faculty of Information Technology, said the study demonstrated how the devices could help support future speech and language therapy outcomes. 

"Early speech and language therapy intervention is important in addressing communication issues related to Parkinson's disease, however, only 59% of people living with Parkinson's disease in Australia have regular contact with a therapist," she said.

"The limited access to clinical services and speech therapies is a major concern and one that we hope to address through this research.

"By presenting our initial findings of how voice-assisted technologies can support speech and language therapy outcomes for people with Parkinson's disease, we hope that we can encourage the future use of voice-assisted technologies by speech and language therapists in clinical settings to support patients."

Meanwhile, a project led by the Australian National University (ANU) and the University of Queensland has developed a national contact tracing web app that pulls together current contact tracing alert locations from across the country and makes it available all in one place via an interactive map.

"The app provides a one-stop-shop to review COVID-19 exposure sites and the time of exposure as identified by health departments," ANU epidemiologist Dr Meru Sheel said.

"Having a one-stop-shop can help speed up the process of contact tracing for epidemiologists and build outbreak mud maps to help understand transmission patterns."  

Designed to be accessible on a desktop or smartphone, the app allows users to set up automatic alerts for specific locations, such as warning of new cases in a specific suburb or postcode, as well as receive daily situation update. Users can also ask specific questions, such as the number of locally acquired cases in specific areas during a specific time period.

According to ANU Software Innovation Institute chief scientist Graham Williams, the technology developed for the app has been designed to collect, store, and share publicly available "postcode level" data.  

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