The internet was in a bit of an uproar this week after Amazon admitted that employees listen to select customer conversations with Alexa, Amazon’s voice-enabled assistant.
Yet, the tech giant seems unfazed by the news, noting that employees only listen to a handful of recordings with the ultimate goal of improving communications. In fact, Amazon’s data has allowed them to develop HIPAA-enabled “skills” within Amazon Alexa, allowing a select number of healthcare developers to begin creating for the platform.
So what does this mean for Amazon’s role in the healthcare space? And what can we expect for the future of healthcare with voice assistants playing a more important role in patient’s lives?
The Shift to HIPAA-Compliance in Amazon Alexa
Amazon Alexa customers can enable “skills” that can switch on the lights, start up coffee makers, read the weather, take notes, read an audiobook, and much more. Now, select health developers have been given the opportunity to develop advanced skills for healthcare consumers, announcing the release of HIPAA-enabled skills.
In other words, select Amazon Alexa skills can now receive and transmit Protected Health Information through the voice assistant. Amazon has likely made some major changes to the way it handles the data that comes through these new HIPAA-compliant apps (including employees’ access to voice transcripts). Amazon’s website includes the following disclaimer with its new healthcare skills:
“This skill may allow healthcare organizations to process your health information. Content provided by this skill may be available to anyone using your Alexa devices, but to protect your interactions with these organizations, your Alexa interaction history and activity cards associated with this skill will not be viewable in the Alexa App or via www.amazon.com/alexaprivacy.”
Healthcare Skills You Can Try on Alexa Right Now
As part of its rollout for HIPAA-enabled apps, Amazon invited select developers to create skills that integrate PHI and help patients get the services they need. So far, Amazon has announced 6 new healthcare skills developed by big names including Cigna, Atrium Health, and Express Scripts.
Here are some of the skills some Alexa customers can try right now.
- “Alexa, list my incentives.” Any Alexa user can enable Answers by Cigna Health to get answers to tough questions about healthcare and healthcare coverage. Select Cigna customers (currently open to employees of American Eagle Outfitters) can enable Cigna Health Today and ask for specific information about their health plan.
- “Alexa, what’s my blood sugar?” Livongo for Diabetes’ program members can ask Alexa for the most recent reading from their Livongo device.
- “Alexa, where’s the nearest urgent care?” Alexa users located near an Atrium Health or Swedish Health Connect can find the urgent care nearest to their location and even schedule an appointment at select locations.
- “Alexa, where’s my prescription?” Customers using the service Express Scripts can track their orders through Alexa.
Amazon’s Big Plans for Healthcare
It’s not exactly a secret that Amazon has big plans to move into the healthcare space. Early last year, Amazon purchased its own online pharmacy, PillPack. It also joined forces with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan, announcing plans to create a low-cost healthcare plan for employees. In fact, these were only two of a long list of healthcare moves from Amazon 2018 (detailed in Becker’s).
Amazon’s inclusion of healthcare apps that can collect and transmit PHI is likely a major part of this shift. After this launch phase, Amazon can begin to incorporate its own products and services into the voice platform, including its investment in the pharmaceutical industry and its developing health plans. There’s no telling how far it may go.
What Healthcare Providers Can Learn and Expect
With only 6 HIPAA-compliant healthcare apps available currently on the Alexa platform, what can the rest of us learn and expect from Amazon moving forward?
Amazon’s recent investment in healthcare is proof the tech giant believes voice search is a way of the future. Amazon’s data points to the fact that patients are searching for health information online. And Amazon knows that customizing this information to each person’s needs can only add value to a customer’s experience.
Healthcare providers can expect to see much more from the voice assistant over the next few years. The most proactive of providers and organizations will reap the most benefit. While the current skills were developed by invite only, Amazon hopes to release more healthcare skills in the near future and invites developers to receive updates and submit potential use cases.
Otherwise HCPs should be aware of the role voice assistants play in the lives of many of their patients. You may be able to help improve your chances of appearing in voice search by improving your search engine optimization. For the most part, doctors, marketers, and hospital leadership should stay informed and be ready for major shifts in the coming years.