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?