Amazon Alexa lures in health developers, can’t connect patients with doctors yet

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Amazon Alexa can now help with scheduling a doctor’s appointment or checking on the status of a medication, rendering hands-free experience.

As of this week, the smart assistant is HIPAA compliant, meaning Amazon can work hospitals and other health providers that are responsible for managing health data to share personal information on an Echo.

Nevertheless, the device does not allow users to connect with a doctor or a therapist and it might take a few years before it has been updated to do so. As of now, Amazon is working with applications on an invite-only basis, and none of the initial six developers seem to be linking patients with doctors.

Developers who are focused on digital health have shown skepticism about using home speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home for medical consults, as it might jeopardize the privacy of the users and raise concerns about sensitive health information falling into the wrong hands. Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that thousands of Amazon employees listen to snippets of conversations held with Alexa in order to supposedly improve the product experience.

“It’s tricky,” said Robbie Cape, CEO of 98point6, a Seattle-based company that provides virtual medical consults via smartphones and the web. “To uphold user trust, I can imagine that Amazon Alexa would need to confirm they’re talking to the right person, but also that there’s no one else in the room listening to the conversation.”

Cape’s team, which includes former Amazon and Microsoft employees, has engaged in thoughts about whether 98point6′s technology should be available through voice assistants, but have not yet come to a concrete plan.

Oren Fran, CEO of Talkspace, has also been considering the integration of virtual therapy app with voice assistants, including Alexa, as many of the users prefer Siri for typing out messages. He said that he is reluctant to trust Alexa, as it is important that his users feel safe about their information.

“I give Amazon the benefit of the doubt over say, Facebook, but I also realize that they’re new to providing health care services,” said Frank

Currently, Amazon is focusing on things like nutrition coaching and tools to help users find out nearby health services.

“It seems to me like they’re doing it the right way,” said David Schoolcraft, a Seattle-based lawyer at Ogden Murphy Wallace who specializes in privacy and health-care information technology. “Something like finding a location for urgent care or a basic followup is more generic and isn’t likely to cause harm.”

At the meantime, Amazon is working on features that could be used to enhance privacy in the near future. For instance, Amazon is reportedly working on improving capabilities to identify specific voices in a household and is building on Alexa-powered earbuds, which would enable users to keep their commands and conversations from other people around.

“For Amazon, this will be a long-term process that requires ongoing monitoring and training and education,” said Schoolcraft. “Compliance is a process and not a one-time step.”

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