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Alexa Voice Assistant Centerpiece Of Amazon Health Effort

Posted on June 1, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

I don’t know about you, but until recently I had thought of the Amazon Echo is something of a toy. From what I saw, it seemed too cute, too gimmicky and definitely too expensive for my taste. Then I had a chance to try out the Echo my mother kept in her kitchen.

It’s almost embarrassing to say how quickly I was hooked. I didn’t even use many of Alexa’s capabilities. All I had to do was command her to play some music, answer some questions and do a search on the Amazon.com site and I was convinced I needed to have one. Its $99 price suddenly seemed like a bargain.

Of course, being a health IT geek I immediately wondered how the Alexa voice assistant might play a part in applications like telemedicine, but I was spending too much time playing “Name That Song” (I’m an 80s champ) to think things through.

But I had the right instincts. It’s become increasingly clear that Amazon sees Alexa as a key channel for reaching healthcare decision-makers.

According to a story appearing on the CNBC website, Amazon has built a 12-person team within the Alexa voice-assisted division called “health & wellness” whose focus is to make Alexa more useful to healthcare patients and providers. Its first targets include diabetes management, care for mothers and infants and aging, according to people who spoke anonymously with CNBC.

Of course, this effort would involve working through HIPAA rules, but it’s hard to imagine that a company like Amazon couldn’t buy and/or cultivate that expertise.

In the piece, writers Eugene Kim and Christina Farr argue that the mere existence of the health & wellness group is a clear sign that Amazon plans to bring Alexa to healthcare. As long as the Echo can share and upload data in a secure, HIPAA-compliant fashion, the possibilities are almost endless. In addition to sharing data with patients and clinicians, this would make it possible to integrate the data with secure third-party apps.

Of course, a 12-person unit is microscopic in size within a company like Amazon, and from that standpoint, the group might seem like a one-off experiment. On the other hand, its work seems more important when you consider the steps Amazon has already taken in the healthcare space.

The most conspicuous move Amazon has made in healthcare came in early 2018, when it announced a joint initiative with Berkshire Hathaway and J.P. Morgan focused on improving healthcare services. To date, the partnership hasn’t said much about its plans, but it’s hard to argue that something huge could emerge from bringing together players of this size.

In another, less conspicuous move, Alexa took a step towards competing in the diabetes care market. In the summer of 2017, working with Merck, Amazon offered a prize to developers building Alexa “skills” which could help people with diabetes manage all aspects of their care. One might argue that this kind of project could be more important than something big and splashy.

It’s worth noting at this point that even a monster like Google still hasn’t made bold moves in healthcare (though it does have extraordinarily ambitious plans). Amazon may not find it easy to compete. Still, it will certainly do some interesting things, and I’m eager to see them play out. In fact, I’m on the edge of my seat – aren’t you?

Key Articles in Health IT from 2017 (Part 2 of 2)

Posted on January 4, 2018 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space. Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

The first part of this article set a general context for health IT in 2017 and started through the year with a review of interesting articles and studies. We’ll finish the review here.

A thoughtful article suggests a positive approach toward health care quality. The author stresses the value of organic change, although using data for accountability has value too.

An article extolling digital payments actually said more about the out-of-control complexity of the US reimbursement system. It may or not be coincidental that her article appeared one day after the CommonWell Health Alliance announced an API whose main purpose seems to be to facilitate payment and other data exchanges related to law and regulation.

A survey by KLAS asked health care providers what they want in connected apps. Most apps currently just display data from a health record.

A controlled study revived the concept of Health Information Exchanges as stand-alone institutions, examining the effects of emergency departments using one HIE in New York State.

In contrast to many leaders in the new Administration, Dr. Donald Rucker received positive comments upon acceding to the position of National Coordinator. More alarm was raised about the appointment of Scott Gottlieb as head of the FDA, but a later assessment gave him high marks for his first few months.

Before Dr. Gottlieb got there, the FDA was already loosening up. The 21st Century Cures Act instructed it to keep its hands off many health-related digital technologies. After kneecapping consumer access to genetic testing and then allowing it back into the ring in 2015, the FDA advanced consumer genetics another step this year with approval for 23andMe tests about risks for seven diseases. A close look at another DNA site’s privacy policy, meanwhile, warns that their use of data exploits loopholes in the laws and could end up hurting consumers. Another critique of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act has been written by Dr. Deborah Peel of Patient Privacy Rights.

Little noticed was a bill authorizing the FDA to be more flexible in its regulation of digital apps. Shortly after, the FDA announced its principles for approving digital apps, stressing good software development practices over clinical trials.

No improvement has been seen in the regard clinicians have for electronic records. Subjective reports condemned the notorious number of clicks required. A study showed they spend as much time on computer work as they do seeing patients. Another study found the ratio to be even worse. Shoving the job onto scribes may introduce inaccuracies.

The time spent might actually pay off if the resulting data could generate new treatments, increase personalized care, and lower costs. But the analytics that are critical to these advances have stumbled in health care institutions, in large part because of the perennial barrier of interoperability. But analytics are showing scattered successes, being used to:

Deloitte published a guide to implementing health care analytics. And finally, a clarion signal that analytics in health care has arrived: WIRED covers it.

A government cybersecurity report warns that health technology will likely soon contribute to the stream of breaches in health care.

Dr. Joseph Kvedar identified fruitful areas for applying digital technology to clinical research.

The Government Accountability Office, terror of many US bureaucracies, cam out with a report criticizing the sloppiness of quality measures at the VA.

A report by leaders of the SMART platform listed barriers to interoperability and the use of analytics to change health care.

To improve the lower outcomes seen by marginalized communities, the NIH is recruiting people from those populations to trust the government with their health data. A policy analyst calls on digital health companies to diversify their staff as well. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is also getting into the act.

Specific technologies

Digital apps are part of most modern health efforts, of course. A few articles focused on the apps themselves. One study found that digital apps can improve depression. Another found that an app can improve ADHD.

Lots of intriguing devices are being developed:

Remote monitoring and telehealth have also been in the news.

Natural language processing and voice interfaces are becoming a critical part of spreading health care:

Facial recognition is another potentially useful technology. It can replace passwords or devices to enable quick access to medical records.

Virtual reality and augmented reality seem to have some limited applications to health care. They are useful foremost in education, but also for pain management, physical therapy, and relaxation.

A number of articles hold out the tantalizing promise that interoperability headaches can be cured through blockchain, the newest hot application of cryptography. But one analysis warned that blockchain will be difficult and expensive to adopt.

3D printing can be used to produce models for training purposes as well as surgical tools and implants customized to the patient.

A number of other interesting companies in digital health can be found in a Fortune article.

We’ll end the year with a news item similar to one that began the article: serious good news about the ability of Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) to save money. I would also like to mention three major articles of my own:

I hope this review of the year’s articles and studies in health IT has helped you recall key advances or challenges, and perhaps flagged some valuable topics for you to follow. 2018 will continue to be a year of adjustment to new reimbursement realities touched off by the tax bill, so health IT may once again languish somewhat.

What If Your Doctor Knew All Your Health Searches?

Posted on June 30, 2016 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.

Back in 2013, the Pew Research Internet Project found that 72% of internet users looked online for health information. This was well before the most recent update to Dr. Google. It’s only a matter of time that those health searches will end up going through some sort of AI solution (Siri, Alexa, Galaxy, etc) we bring into the home.

Imagine if we connected this font of health information and questions together with the healthcare establishment. What if your doctor had access to all of the health related searches you were doing? Might he be able to provide better service to you and your family?

Yes, I realize that this idea will be extremely controversial. There are some major privacy challenges and issues with this idea, but there’s also a lot of potential benefits. It seems a little bit hypocritical that we ask doctors to be open and transparent with our health records if we as patients aren’t going to be open and transparent with our medical concerns. Certainly, we should be able to control what and with whom we share this information, but I believe that many will be willing to share it with their doctors.

Yes, this will require a pretty dramatic shift in how our medical professionals will handle a patient visit. However, if I’ve been doing a bunch of searches around back pain, imagine how much different my visit to the doctor for an earache would be. Could that provide the opportunity for the doctor to talk to me about my back pain searches?

It’s fascinating to think how this is almost the complete opposite of the office visit today. I’ve seen doctors that wanted to only deal with one issue at a time. Those doctors have learned the special dance that allows them to avoid talking about more than the presenting concern. Many doctors learn essentially a new language that makes sure that they get in and out of the exam room quickly without bringing up the rabbit hole of potential health problems a patient might be actually experiencing.

That’s the reality of today’s medicine. This is what we pay them to do. That’s changing with things like CCM where a healthcare provider is paid to dig in a little deeper. It’s certainly not enough to fully change these behaviors.

Until the reimbursement fully changes over to doctors getting paid to keep you healthy, a doctor knowing your health searches won’t be of interest to most doctors. However, once reimbursement changes, a doctor will become much more interested in what’s really ailing you. Your online searches certainly will say a lot about your health, both physical and mental.