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Some Alexa Health “Skills” Don’t Comply With Amazon Medical Policies

Posted on July 18, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

It’s becoming predictable: A company offering AI assistant for scheduling medical appointments thinks that consumers want to use Amazon’s Alexa to schedule appointments with their doctor. The company, Nimblr, is just one of an expanding number of developers that see Alexa integration as an opportunity for growth.

However, Nimblr and its peers have stepped into an environment where the standards for health applications are a bit slippery. That’s no fault of theirs, but it might affect the future of Amazon Alexa health applications, which can ultimately affect every developer that works with the Alexa interface.

Nimblr’s Holly AI has recently begun to let patients book and reschedule appointments using Alexa voice commands. According to its prepared statement, Nimblr expects to integrate with other voice command platforms as well, but Alexa is clearly an important first step.

The medical appointment service is integrated with a range of EHRs, including athenahealth, Care Cloud and DrChrono.  To use the service, doctors sign up and let Holly access their calendar and EHR.

Patients who choose to use the Amazon interface go through a scripted dialogue allowing them to set, change or cancel an appointment with their doctor. The patient uses Alexa to summon Holly, then tells Holly the doctor with whom they’d like to book an appointment. A few commands later, the patient has booked a visit. No need to sit at a computer or peer at a smartphone screen.

For Amazon, this kind of agreement is the culmination of a long-term strategy. According to an article featured in Quartz Alexa is now in roughly 20 million American homes and owns more than 70% of the US market for voice-driven assistants. Recently it’s made some power moves in healthcare — including the acquisition of online pharmacy PillPack. It’s has also worked to build connections with healthcare partners, including third-party developers that can enrich the healthcare options available to Alexa users.

Most of the activity that drives Alexa comes from “skills,” which resemble smartphone apps, made available on the Alexa store by independent developers. According to Quartz, the store hosted roughly 900 skills in its “health and fitness” category on the Alexa skills store as of mid-April.

In theory, externally-developed health skills must meet three criteria: they may not collect personal information from customers, cannot imply that they are life-saving by names and descriptions and must include a disclaimer stating that they are not medical devices — and that users should ask their providers if they believe they need medical attention.

However, according to Quartz, as of mid-April there were 65 skills in the store that didn’t provide the required disclaimer. If so, this raises questions as to how stringently Amazon supervises the skills uploaded by its third-party developers.

Let me be clear that I’m not criticizing Nimblr in any way. As far as I know, the company is doing everything the right way. My only critiques would be that it’s not clear to me why its Alexa tool is much more useful than a plain old portal, and that of the demo video is any indication, that the interactions between Alexa and the consumer are a trifle awkward. On the whole, it seems like a useful tool and will likely get better over time.

However, with a growing number of healthcare developers featuring apps Alexa’s skills store, it will be worth watching to see if Amazon enforces its own rules. If not, reputable developers like Nimblr might not want to go there.

Alexa and Medical Practices

Posted on December 12, 2017 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

Today I was asked to do a webinar for Solutionreach on the topic of “What You Need to Know for 2018: From Government Regulations to New Technology.” It was a fun webinar to put together and I believe you can still register and get access to the recorded version of the webinar.

In my presentation, I covered a lot of ground including talking about the consumerization of healthcare and how our retail experiences are so different than our healthcare experiences. In 2018, I see the wave of technology that’s available to make a medical practice’s patient experience be much closer to a patient’s retail experience. That’s exciting.

One of the areas I mentioned is the move to voice-powered devices like Amazon Echo, Google Home, Siri, etc. Someone asked a question about how quickly these devices were going to hit healthcare. No doubt they have experienced how amazing these devices are in their home (I have 2 at home and love them), but the idea of connecting with your doctor through Alexa is a little mind bending. It goes against our normal rational thoughts. However, it will absolutely happen.

Just to be clear, Alexa is not currently HIPAA compliant. However, many things we want to do in healthcare don’t require PHI. Plus, if the patient agrees to do it, then HIPAA is not an issue. It’s not very hard to see how patients could ask “Alexa, when is my next appointment?” or even “Alexa, please schedule an appointment with my OB/GYN on Friday in the afternoon.” The technology is almost there to do this. Especially if you tie this in to one of the patient self scheduling tools. Pretty amazing to consider, no?

I also highlighted how the latest Amazon Echo Show includes a video screen as well. It’s easy to see how one could say, “Alexa, please connect me with my doctor.” Then, Alexa could connect you with a doctor for a telemedicine visit all through the Alexa Show. Ideally, this would be your primary care doctor, but most patients will be ok with a doctor of any sort in order to make the experience easy and convenient for them.

Of course, we see a lot of other healthcare applications of Alexa. It can help with loneliness. It can help with Alzheimers patients who are asking the same question over and over again and driving their caregiver crazy. It could remind you of medications and track how well you’re doing at taking them or other care plan tracking. And we’re just getting started.

It’s an exciting time to be in healthcare and it won’t be long until voice activated devices like Alexa are connecting us to our healthcare and improving our health.

What do you think of Alexa and other related solutions? Where do you see it having success in healthcare? How long will it take for us to get there?

Note: Solutionreach is a Healthcare Scene sponsor.

Amazon Attacking Health IT Opportunities

Posted on August 17, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Getting a footing in the health IT industry is more challenging than it looks. After all, even tech giants like Microsoft, Apple, and Google haven’t managed to take over despite their evident interest in the field.

Apparently, that hasn’t daunted Amazon. The retail giant has pulled together a secret team dedicated to exploring new healthcare technology opportunities, according to a CNBC report. And unlike other companies attacking the space from outside, Amazon has a history of sliding its way into unexpected markets successfully.

According to CNBC the new team, which is named 1492, is working to find an easier way to extract data from EMRs as well as push data into them. In doing so, Amazon is going up against a very wide field of competitors ranging from small startups to the healthcare arms of giant tech vendors and consulting firms.

What distinguishes Amazon’s approach from its competitors is that the online retailer hopes to aggregate that data and make it available to consumers and their doctors, sources told CNBC. The story doesn’t say whether Amazon plans to sell this data, and I don’t know what’s legal and what isn’t here, but my bet is that if it can, Amazon will pitch the data to pharmaceutical companies. And where there’s a will there’s a way.

In addition to looking at data management opportunities, 1492 members are scouting out ways of repurposing Amazon’s existing technology for use in healthcare. As another article notes, some healthcare organizations have already begun experimenting with delivering routine medical information and even coaching surgeons on safety protocols using Amazon voice-based assistant Alexa.  The new group, for its part, will be looking for healthcare applications for existing Amazon products like the Echo and Dash Wand.

The 1492 group is also preparing to build a telemedicine platform. Your first thought might be that the industry doesn’t need another telemedicine platform, and generally speaking, you would probably be right.  But if Amazon can get its healthcare IT bona fides in order, and manages to attract enough doctors to its platform, it could be in a strong position to market those services to consumers.

Make no mistake: We should take Amazon’s health IT effort seriously. At first glance, healthcare may seem like an odd arena for a company best known for selling frying pans and socks and discount beauty supplies. But Amazon has expanded its focus many times over the years and has typically done better than people expected. It may do so this time as well.

By the way, the retailer is apparently still hiring people for the 1492 initiative. I doubt it’s easy to find the hiring manager in question, but if I were you I’d inquire. These jobs could pose some interesting challenges.