IoT, Medical, News

Dr. Alexa: Will Smart Speakers Disrupt Health Care?

Smart assistants have faced some legitimate criticism over their usefulness and privacy-mindedness. Alexa has a history of placing unsolicited online purchases on behalf of “her” owners. More recently, Amazon had some awkward questions to answer about why some of their staff listen to recorded requests made by their customers. Meanwhile, Siri seems to live in a world all her own. She attempts to answer fewer user inquiries than other digital assistants and fails to answer even fewer correctly.

Even so, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Samsung are continuing full-bore on incorporating their digital assistants into an ever-larger number of consumer devices. Estimates say we’ll have 8 billion smart assistant-enabled devices throughout the world by 2023, rising from 2.5 billion in 2018.

Is there a “killer app” for smart assistants and smart speakers? This is one of the newest product categories in which digital assistants play a prominent role. The big unanswered question is whether smart speakers are merely duplicating functionality users can perform elsewhere or if it’s delivering actual value and convenience.

Amazon’s expansion of its Alexa Skills Kit into health care provides a look at one way smart speakers might prove their usefulness.

What Functionality Does Alexa Provide?

The rollout of the Alexa Skills Kit to health care entities has so far been invite-only, but Amazon is soliciting information from interested parties as it readies the next wave of invitations. But what convenience and functionality do these Alexa Skills actually bring to health care?

So far, Amazon is targeting doctors and hospital systems, pharmacies, digital health coaches and payors. There are only a handful of relevant skills available to customers and patients currently, but they run the gamut of health care companies. The primary goal is to facilitate faster access to care and more convenient communication with third-party health care providers and their respective patient connection portals — including names like Providence Health Connect and Swedish Health Connect.

Some of the specific voice-activated functionality under development, or already available, includes:

  • Checking the status of prescription orders
  • Finding nearby doctor’s offices, clinics, and other health care facilities
  • Delivering information about the next available openings in clinics
  • Setting up visits to primary care physicians
  • Getting reminders for, canceling and rescheduling existing appointments
  • Retrieving a user’s latest personal health data, such as blood pressure readings, and details on health incentives from insurance companies
  • Sending updates to physicians and care teams

Alexa can interpret phrases like “later today” or pick up on mentions of specific times to save patients the trouble of going online, logging in, and manually searching for available appointments.

Setting up these skills takes a few steps, but it only has to be done once:

Patients open the Alexa app and enable the skill for the relevant health care company. If they haven’t already, users must log into their health care provider’s online portal and create a voice PIN. From there, they can link their Alexa device to the account in question.

What Does It Take for Alexa to Edge Into Health Care?

Privacy and data stewardship laws are the biggest barriers to Alexa and other smart speakers when it comes to enabling voice functionality. The most important of these is the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, better known as “HIPAA.”

Any healthcare-related “skills” or functionality — for Alexa or any other personal assistant or smart speaker — must be HIPAA-compliant. Amazon is opening their health care skills development program only to entities which are bound by these requirements. Amazon describes its cloud ecosystem as “HIPAA-eligible,” meaning developers of skills and apps must design their products in a way that abides by HIPAA rules.

The secure transmission and storage of patient health information (PHI) is the most important rule set forth by HIPAA, and Amazon indicates it’s well aware of the stakes. The company says Alexa-facilitated interactions between patients and their health care providers are protected with multiple layers of security — including access control, encryption, secure storage in the cloud and auditing functionality.

Who’s Taking Part So Far — And Who’s Next?

Amazon has so far invited just six health care companies to take part in this portion of the Alexa Skills Kit. These include Providence St. Joseph Health and Swedish Health connect, as mentioned, along with Express Scripts, Cigna, Livongo and Atrium Health.

Other companies, including Northwell Health, have had their own Alexa skills for years — but they only provide functionality not subject to HIPAA rules, such as checking wait times for emergency rooms. According to Northwell, user enthusiasm for these features has been “tepid.” Whether the other functionality proposed here sees wider use remains to be seen.

And that begs another question: Should we expect other tech companies to follow Alexa’s lead? Between this expanded functionality of the Alexa Skills Kit and its recent $753 million acquisition of online pharmacy PillPack, Amazon seems to have a sizeable lead when it comes to tech companies elbowing their way into health care. When approached by the Wall Street Journal for comment, Google didn’t admit to any plans to allow developers to transmit data subject to federal-level privacy rules. Apple was equally cagey.

We’re clearly a long way from asking Siri, Cortana or Alexa for help diagnosing our chronic fatigue, bumps, lumps, and lesions. And so far, the health care functionality enabled by smart speakers seems reasonably convenient but far from earth-shattering. As these devices proliferate, it’s possible a great number of patients will begin asking their devices for help setting up appointments and tracking down their mail-order prescriptions.

Voice commands can be objectively useful, and attention to HIPAA requirements is reassuring — but these “skills” are ultimately a reproduction of features found elsewhere, such as on health provider websites and mobile apps. Patients must decide for themselves here, as with most other modern technology, whether constant controversies over user privacy are worth the seconds saved.


Bio: Nathan Sykes writes about the latest in tech and business from Pittsburgh, PA. To combine his love of writing and technology, he started the blog Finding an Outlet.


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