Amazon unveiled software on Thursday that allows health care companies to build Alexa voice tools capable of securely transmitting private patient information, a move that opens the door to a broad array of uses in homes and hospitals.
The announcement was accompanied by the launch of six voice programs built by large health businesses ranging from Boston Children’s Hospital, to the insurance giant Cigna, to the digital health company Livongo. The new tools allow patients to use Alexa to access personalized information such as progress updates after surgery, prescription delivery notifications, and the locations of nearby urgent care centers.
Perhaps more significant than the individual uses is Alexa’s ability to now traffic in patient information that is protected by the U.S. health privacy law known as HIPAA — a step many stakeholders in the industry have been anticipating. The company said its Alexa Skills Kit, a collection of tools for building voice programs, can be used by health firms to create products that transmit and receive patient data. The move will embolden hospitals, insurers, and other health care firms to expose Alexa to more sensitive details of patients’ lives and medical conditions, and potentially embed the technology deeper into clinical settings.
So far, Amazon has only invited the six companies to use its HIPAA-compliant skills kit to build voice programs. But the company said Thursday that it expects to enable additional health companies to access it as well.
“Every day developers are inventing with voice to build helpful and convenient experiences for their customers,” Amazon wrote in a blog post announcing the news. “These new [Alexa] skills are designed to help customers manage a variety of healthcare needs at home simply using voice.”
The announcement is the latest of several moves telegraphing Amazon’s effort to make inroads into the nation’s $3.5 trillion health care market.
Just in the past year, the company bought the online pharmacy PillPack for $1 billion, presumably to begin selling and shipping prescription drugs. It expanded its business selling supplies to hospitals and launched an exclusive line of over-the-counter products. It also introduced a product called Amazon Comprehend Medical, a machine learning tool that allows users to extract relevant clinical information from unstructured text in patient records.
In addition, the company has formed research partnerships with several major hospitals, including Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. And it is working with Accenture and the pharmaceutical giant Merck to create a data-driven drug development platform on Amazon Web Services, its cloud service.
The company sees its voice technology as one of the most promising lines of business, one that could be used to give patients and caregivers more timely information to help manage their conditions and access services. These are the Alexa tools unveiled Thursday:
- Cigna created a voice program to allow employees of its large national clients to manage their health improvement goals and earn wellness incentives.
- Express Scripts, the pharmacy benefit manager acquired by Cigna, built a tool to allow people to check the status of home delivery prescriptions.
- Boston Children’s Hospital built a program enabling parents and caregivers to provide clinicians with updates on their progress after surgery and get information on post-operative appointments.
- Providence St. Joseph Health, a network of 51 hospitals in seven states, created a tool enabling customers to search for a nearby urgent care center and schedule a same-day appointment. Atrium Health, which operates more than 40 hospitals and 900 clinics in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, built a similar tool.
- Livongo, a digital health company that helps users manage chronic conditions, launched a program that allows people to query their last blood sugar reading and blood sugar measurement trends, and receive personalized health advice.
Alexa itself was still catching up to the news Thursday morning. Asked whether it was HIPAA-compliant, it responded: “Sorry, I don’t know that one.”