Are Patients Ready for Amazon Alexa, MD?

By: on August 9, 2019

This year, Amazon’s Alexa joined the medical software world with the release of six new HIPAA-compliant skills that help users manage their healthcare.

We asked nearly 300 U.S. patients how comfortable they would be using a virtual assistant for these six tasks and found that most are at least somewhat comfortable with them.

Software Advice Survey: patient comfort with Amazon Alexa healthcare skills

Now that we know patients are open to using Alexa to manage their healthcare, it’s going to be imperative for healthcare providers to educate patients on the proper use of these tools—Alexa cannot replace the diagnoses, treatment, or medical advice of actual professionals.

To do that, you must create a communication plan for patients about the benefits and limitations of Alexa’s six new HIPAA-compliant skills so there’s less chance of patients undermining their care plans.

What are Alexa’s new HIPAA-compliant skills?

Amazon announced earlier this year that its Alexa software now offers a HIPAA-compliant Skills Kit that allows medical organizations to build Alexa skills capable of transferring and receiving protected health information.

As part of that initiative, Amazon collaborated with six healthcare companies to create the six new skills that were recently launched. Those organizations, the skills they developed, and the percentage of respondents that are at least moderately comfortable with the skill (Patient Comfort Score) are as follows:

Atrium Health
Allows customers in North and South Carolina will be able to schedule same-day appointments at urgent care facilities.
Patient Comfort Level: 66%

Boston Children’s Hospital
The “My Children’s Enhanced Recovery After Surgery” program allows caregivers to share and obtain post-op information and manage appointments.
Patient Comfort Level: 43%

Created a voice program called “Cigna Health Today” that allows employees of large clients to manage their health goals and earn wellness incentives.
Patient Comfort Level: 63%

Express Scripts
Allows users can check the status of home delivery prescriptions.
Patient Comfort Level: 69%

Allows users to connect Alexa to blood sugar monitoring devices and then use a voice command to ask for their latest blood sugar readings and receive “Health Nudges.”
Patient Comfort Level: 58%

Providence St. Joseph Health
Created a program called “Swedish Health Connect” that lets patients locate nearby urgent care facilities and schedule same-day appointments.
Patient Comfort Level: 69%

While the current Alexa healthcare skills are limited to customers of these six organizations, more skills are expected to be developed that will be more broadly applicable.

In a blog post accompanying the announcement, Amazon said “In the future, [they] expect to enable additional developers to take advantage of this capability.”

So how do you prepare for that eventuality today? By talking to your patients.

Three things your patients need to know before using these features

Right now, there are three important things your Alexa-using patients need to know about these HIPAA-compliant skills to ensure they use them responsibly and correctly. Those three things are:

1. Alexa can’t replace a real doctor

In 2015 and 2016, there were a ton of online articles touting the dangers of patients relying on Dr. Google and WebMD instead of consulting actual medical professionals when symptoms occurred.

Alexa’s healthcare skills aren’t exactly the same as online symptom checkers, but the potential for patients to lean too heavily on this new technology to the detriment of actual medical professionals’ treatment plans is still very much there.

The point you want to get across here is that Alexa’s new skills should be used to enhance medical treatment—never to replace it.

2. This technology is brand new (and may still have kinks to work out)

Remember that the recently released voice skills were all developed as part of an invitation-only program involving only six healthcare facilities.

So far, these new developer tools have not been widely utilized to create broad ranging skills, nor have the six skills been live for long enough to identify significant bugs or gather much user data.

Alexa healthcare skills aren’t likely to go away regardless of whatever kinks crop up in these early days, but patients should be aware that issues may arise. According to Emily Kagan, VP of digital and innovation strategy at Northwell Health, “Everybody feels like it is going to be really game-changing, but [w]e’re all still experimenting.”

3. Some users have privacy concerns

Speaking of kinks, one of the biggest concerns for many healthcare IT professionals for Alexa’s HIPAA skills is the level of security.

Transferring protected health information is a task that needs to come with layers upon layers of security, which is why EHR interoperability is such an important initiative at the moment.

The biggest and most obvious concern for Alexa’s voice skills is the fact that anyone who has access to the device could potentially gain access to users’ personal information. To counter that, Amazon has recommended that all health-related voice commands have user-verification features such as voice codes or logins.

Identify which patients are Alexa users to start a dialogue

So now you have your talking points for explaining the advantages, disadvantages, and proper uses of Alexa’s healthcare voice commands. And if you need a breakdown of how popular each of these skills are, you can view our survey results:

Now—how do you start the conversation? You have a few options.

First, if you’re a specialized practice and/or your patient population is relatively small, you can use a new intake form for all patients to identify those who use Alexa (or might use Alexa in the future) and who are interested in the virtual assistant’s healthcare skills. From there, you can begin longer, more detailed conversations with just those patients in appointments.

Another option for practices with too many patients to make individual conversations feasible is to draft a notice with all of the information and talking points that you can then share out with patients. On it, you should include:

  • A description of Alexa’s six new skills
  • Which patients are or could be eligible to use them
  • The three talking points we covered above
  • Options for contacting you or your team with questions, comments, or feedback

Whichever strategy you adopt, the main goal is to let your patients know you’re aware of the news and prepared to discuss the implications.

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