'Alexa, find me a doctor': Amazon Alexa adds new medical skills


Since it introduced Alexa, Amazon has seen an uptick in interest in its voice assistant technology from the health sector.

One example is Boston Children’s Hospital, which built a skill called KidsMD, that offers generalized wellness advice.

Now, Boston Children’s has a new HIPAA-compliant skill dubbed “ERAS” for kids and their families that are discharged from the hospital. Through Alexa’s voice assistant, patients and caregivers can ask specific questions about their case from the care team, and doctors can remotely check in on the child’s recovery process.

Another company selected for the program is Livongo, a digital health start-up that works with employers to help them manage workers with chronic medical conditions. The company developed a skill for people with diabetes that use connected glucometers to ask about their blood sugar levels. A user might say something like, “Alexa, ask Livongo what my my blood glucose reading was from this morning” to get a quick response.

Livongo’s chief medical officer Jenny Schneider told CNBC that there are lots of reasons she expects users to embrace voice technologies, versus SMS messaging or other platforms: “Some of those people might have difficulty reading, or they just have busy lives and it’s just an easy option,” she said. The company estimates that about 20,000 of its customers already have an Alexa device in their home.

Other partners building Alexa health skills include Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefits manager, and Cigna, a health insurer that merged with Express Scripts last year. That suggests Amazon might look to work with Express Scripts as it moves more deeply into the pharmacy sector following its acquisition of Internet pharmacy company PillPack in the summer of 2018, although that remains to be seen.

Express Scripts is building a way for members to check the status of their home delivery prescription, while Cigna described their skill as helping their members “manage health improvement goals.” There’s also a skill from Providence Health, a Seattle health system, for people to find an urgent care center or schedule an appointment, and a similar one from Atrium Health, a health system across North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

The developers behind these skills pointed to the trend of bringing health to the home, which represents both a cheaper and more convenient option for the patient. It’s also a way for providers, including doctors and nurses, to monitor patients once they leave the home, which both gives them an opportunity to prevent costly readmissions to the hospital.

“We’re in a renaissance of voice technology and voice assistants in health care,” said John Brownstein, chief innovation officer for Boston Children’s Hospital. “It’s so appealing as there’s very little training, it’s low cost and convenient.”

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