With the announcement this past spring of an Amazon partnership with JPMorgan and Berkshire Hathaway and Amazon’s push into pharma with its purchase of Pillpack in June, the tech world is poised for a new degree of disruption. Soon after, headlines announced the entrance of Amazon’s digital voice assistant, Alexa, into the healthcare space. Suddenly the future isn’t so far away.
CNBC reported that home health aides are now testing the use of Amazon’s Echo platform to assist elderly patients. They’re finding that the system gives clients more access to family members and greater assurance that clients get their medication on time.
Other tech companies are rushing into the space to provide similar services. Bill Rogers, co-founder and CEO of Orbita, a voice-platform startup in Boston, was reported to say, “Voice is becoming that next wave of how can we engage because it really means that we’re lowering the friction for people to be able to interact with something.”
According to CNBC, Amazon has built a 12-person health-and-wellness team within its Alexa division to dive more deeply into the health-care space. Now in its second year, the Amazon Accelerator, according to the TechStars website, seeks “startups advancing voice-powered technologies in such areas as connected home, entertainment, speech science, enterprise, family-focused technology and connected play, and enabling technologies and developer tools. Teams also have access to Alexa Skills Kit (ASK), Alexa Voice Services (AVS), Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Amazon Launchpad.”
With the population aging amid a projected shortage of nurses, Amazon’s move into automated healthcare couldn’t’ be better timed.
Last December, a Pew Research Center study found that nearly half of Americans are now using digital voice assistants, most on their smartphones.
“By 2020, 50% of all searches will be conducted by voice and smart speakers are expected to reach 55% of U.S. households by 2022. It is no different for physicians,” reported the Harvard Business Review in March. As for physicians, HBR reported, while more than a third of those surveyed were undecided about introducing voice tech in clinical settings, nearly half were willing to do so. Greater acceptance seems to exist for uses in non-treatment areas, such as waiting rooms, and at home.
Amazon is capitalizing on its dominant market penetration, its existing large community of developers, and the fact that people are already more comfortable talking to robots than we were just a few short years ago. “A leader in consumer-facing AI and enterprise cloud services,” Amazon has an “insatiable appetite for new markets,” according to a recent strategy report from CBInsights, and the company is becoming increasingly acquisitive, as its purchase of Whole Foods and Pillpack indicate.
With the lightning speed of innovation, Alexa is already competing in the healthcare space with other household names like Siri, Google Home and Assistant, and Cortana. This goes far beyond simple messaging. These are thinking chatbots and ambient listening tools designed to respond to patients’ most common questions.
The Medical Futurist lists a number of healthcare app solutions desired by consumers in the U.K. These include, in order of popularity,
- Booking appointments (47 percent)
- Managing prescriptions (42 percent)
- Diet and exercise tracking and advice (38 percent)
- Heart rate and blood pressure monitoring (36 percent)
- Reviewing symptoms and advice (32 percent)
- Reporting symptoms and illness (29 percent)
- Mental health support (25 percent)
- Messaging with medical services (23 percent)
Now, inpatients can call for a nurse, inquire on their day’s diet, and check on wait times at emergency rooms and urgent-care clinics. Clinical staff can speak with one another, hands-free and on the fly. Other applications include adherence and compliance, coordination of care, and surveys.
Who’s in the game
Amazon’s jargon for the “computing manifestation of a task that a voice assistant performs in the real world” is a “skill.” And developers are flocking to the opportunities that “voice healthcare” is creating for new skills.
Probably the most visible developer in the space is the voice and AI health IT tech company Orbita. Last fall, Healthcare IT News reported that Orbita released a feature-rich upgrade to its Orbita Voice platform “that enables healthcare provider organizations to create and maintain applications for voice-assistants and conversational AI platforms like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.”
On the client side, hospitals that are already using AI in clinical settings include Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Northwell Health in New York, the Commonwealth Care Alliance in Boston, and Libertana Home Health in Los Angeles, according to HealthCareITNews.com.
In March, health-services company Cigna launched its “Answers by Cigna” skill for Alexa, able to answer more than 150 commonly asked health care questions.
According to cNet, the Google Home speaker, which houses Google Assistant, integrated WebMD in December,” and Amazon issued the Alexa Diabetes Challenge for startups to develop voice assistants to help patients manage their Type 2 diabetes. The winner, Sugarpod by Wellpepper, won the $125,000 grand prize last October. According to the Challenge website, “Sugarpod is a comprehensive diabetes care plan solution that provides tailored tasks based on patient preferences. It delivers patient experiences via SMS, email, web, and a mobile application – and one day, through voice interfaces as well.”
We’re not quite there yet
As recently as May, users of Alexa were disturbed by the voice assistant’s creepy, unprompted laughing. It evidently was an easy fix, but it was also an unintended result that could undermine users trust.
Logistical obstacles still exist before voice healthcare is fully realized, the big nut yet to crack being regulatory compliance. Business Insider recently reported that Alexa still isn’t compliant with HIPAA and with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (which prohibits online services from gathering data on children under 13 without parental consent). Data privacy regulations are at least as complex as AI programming that makes these platforms possible.
Content quality is critical if the public will entrust AI assistants with their health. Confidence in voice tech largely comes down to providers accessing reliable, trusted sources for the information in the platform. And you can’t take shovelware from longform text documents and push it into a voice environment. As Nathan Treloar, president and COO of Orbita, was quoted as saying, “You have to rethink the way you deliver these text-based experiences.”
But we will be
As a future-leaning thought leader in tech innovation, tekMountain is staying abreast of developments in the exciting space of healthcare voice assistants. Check this blog regularly for updates.