Skills, Pills, & Hospital Bills: Amazon Debuts Alexa Health Features

Xconomy Seattle — 

Owners of Amazon’s voice-controlled, Internet-connected speakers can now use the gadgets to manage more aspects of their healthcare, following the company’s announcement Thursday that its Alexa devices can interface with software applications that process protected health information.

As part of the announcement, Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) unveiled six “Alexa healthcare skills,” which allow patients to book medical appointments, track prescription drug deliveries, and complete other tasks with help from a virtual assistant.

Skills help guide Alexa by mapping out how verbal instructions given to one of the speakers correspond to actions within software applications.

Seattle-based Amazon said it worked with different types of healthcare organizations, including hospital and clinic networks, insurers, and software companies, to develop the skills and ensure they’re covered by a US law that regulates the use, disclosure, and transmission of protected patient health information. Violating the law, which is known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, can result in fines or even jail time.

The announcement provides new insight into the much-discussed question of whether, and how, Amazon plans to move deeper into the $3 trillion-plus US healthcare industry. Haven, the company’s joint venture announced in early 2018 alongside Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM), is aimed at improving the quality of healthcare the three business’ US-based employees receive, as well as lowering costs. The new Alexa healthcare skills, meanwhile, suggest Amazon could play a key role in bringing new technologies into doctor offices and other healthcare settings—and getting them to work with the digital tools providers and patients are already using.

“This is a major thing that Amazon has done—it has basically opened up the world of healthcare to building skills on Alexa,” said Aaron Martin, chief digital officer at Providence St. Joseph Health. The Renton, WA-based health system, which operates 51 hospitals and 829 clinics across seven US states, worked with Amazon over the past several months to develop an Alexa skill allowing people to use their Amazon smart speakers to schedule appointments at Providence’s Express Care clinics, which serve patients with low-acuity conditions.

Rachel Jiang, head of Alexa Health and Wellness at Amazon, said in a blog post that her company, Providence, and other organizations involved in developing the first half-dozen Alexa healthcare skills did so “as part of an invite-only program.” Amazon expects it will allow more software developers, including ones who aren’t part of organizations already involved with the program, to build healthcare-focused skills for Alexa devices, but Jiang didn’t give a timeline for expanding access.

The first six Alexa healthcare skills Amazon revealed cover areas such as scheduling and provider-patient communication. Jiang’s post contains no language on allowing patients to pay hospital bills through Alexa, though industry observers reportedly view healthcare billing as an area into which tech giants like Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) are well-positioned to move.

It’s not yet clear how portable the skills developed by healthcare providers, for their own patients’ use, will be.

For example, Providence plans to continue rolling out the two scheduling skills it created with Amazon, Martin said. By the end of April, patients in Washington and Oregon will be able to use Alexa to book appointments at 37 Providence Express Care clinics across the two states, he said.

But the two skills are merely a component of what Martin called a “low-acuity platform” that also allows patients to request on-demand telehealth sessions and home visits. “The Alexa skill is just an additional way that someone can access that platform,” he said.

Allowing clinics outside of Providence’s network to use its Alexa skills might involve spinning them and the overarching technology out as a startup and incubating it within Providence’s Digital Innovation Group. Providence has taken this type of approach in the past with early-stage companies, like Xealth and Wildflower Health, Martin said.

“What would happen is you would spin out a separate company” to sell the software platform Providence is developing, including the Alexa skills, Martin said. Providence would then become a customer of the company, and pay to license its software.

“Eventually [it would] be available to other health systems, if they want to license that technology,” he said. “When we build something new and novel that we’ve seen work in our health system, we try to make it available to as many other health systems as possible.”

That’s not to say all of Amazon’s partners in the Alexa healthcare skills program will also follow the spinout and licensing model.

Another Alexa healthcare skill Amazon unveiled on Wednesday was developed in tandem with Livongo, a Silicon Valley-based startup developing devices and software for managing chronic conditions, such as diabetes. If someone who uses Livongo’s technology is getting ready to eat or exercise, for example, the skill allows the user to ask an Alexa device what his last blood-glucose reading was.

“Speaking and listening are natural communication channels, and voice-based capabilities also allow us to reach people who prefer other modes of communication,” Jennifer Schneider, Livongo’s president, said in a news release.

In addition to Livongo and Providence, Amazon’s partners in the Alexa healthcare skills program are Cigna (NYSE: CI), a large health insurer; the pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts, which is now part of Cigna; and healthcare providers Boston Children’s Hospital and Atrium Health, which is headquartered in Charlotte, NC.