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Can voice assistants lead to healthier new moms and babies?

Pregnancy is a stressful time. What follows isn’t easier. Who can pregnant women and new mothers turn to for help?

How about Alexa?

Or Siri? Or Google?

Eighty-one percent of the U.S. population owns smartphones equipped with voice technology, and globally, 8 billion digital voice assistants are expected to be in use by 2023.

Researchers in Columbus are finding opportunities to use this rapidly expanding technology to support the health of mothers and their babies through positive stress-management techniques, self-care and infant-care practices.

A research team that includes Lisa Militello, an assistant professor in the College of Nursing, and Emre Sezgin, a digital health scientist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, is developing voice technology to support the health of new mothers and their infants.

Their project is called Stress Management Intervention Life Essentials, or SMILE, and it looks to use commercially available digital assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, to deliver brief, interactive education and stress management skills to women during their pregnancy and through their child’s first birthday.

The technology also can share parenting tips and health information to reinforce what parents are learning at medical checkups.

“We are trying to leverage up-and-coming voice technology to promote health, stress management and healthy lifestyle behaviors,” Militello said.

SMILE was created as part of the Cleveland-based Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society’s call for innovative projects at its Battle for Our Babies Summit, aimed at reducing infant mortality in low-income and underserved populations.

Researchers hope this technology can help decrease maternal and infant mortality rates by increasing education and awareness for populations that don’t have access to good health services. The infant mortality rate in the United States is about 71 percent higher than that of comparable countries.

The SMILE team has already begun testing the technology. Pregnant women were able to try out the digital assistants, and researchers were able to gather data on how often the technology was used and how and whether it was useful.

As the project moves forward, researchers plan to include community health workers and mothers in design sessions for the digital assistant, so that it best serves its target audience. In the final stage of testing, the technology’s efficacy will be gauged by various outcomes, including how stress levels change within mothers and how often doctor appointments are being completed in the first year.

Militello and Sezgin don’t want to limit this technology to perinatal health. Sezgin said he hopes to expand digital assistants to broader populations — not just for specific diseases but for daily health as well.

“Ultimately, we want to use these tools to help people in their everyday lives,” Sezgin said.