Alexa is finding her voice (pun intended) within the healthcare ecosystem. She is gaining traction as an assistant in several healthcare scenarios, making her an innovative tool in delivering medical care and positive health outcomes.
“Hey Siri…”, “Alexa…”, “Hey Google…”, any of these sound familiar? These and more wake words we use to interact with our digital assistants have become commonplace in our homes and workplaces. We’ve used them to play music, select movies, conduct Google searches, turn our appliances on or off, and even make shopping lists. In fact, they have become so popular that the smart speaker market could reach a whopping $23.3 billion market worth by 2025. These digital assistants have sure become handy, and chances are you have even interacted with at least one of these intelligent devices at some point in your daily life. But have you used them for medical purposes? Well, Amazon’s Alexa promesses to become your new go-to tool for your medical needs.
As you may already know–or read–, we’ve touched on Amazon’s incursion into the healthcare ecosystem in previous articles. The internet giant is notorious for disrupting every ground it stomps on, and healthcare is certainly no different. In recent years, Amazon has been dipping its toes in the multi-billion dollar pool that entails healthcare and has driven many healthcare-oriented initiatives such as Amazon Care and Amazon Pharmacy. These efforts indeed appear to be outside the scope of the e-commerce giant. However, given its mind-blowing track record of disruption and bringing innovation into existing markets, we can’t say we’re the least bit surprised that they finally decided to test the water in the healthcare industry. And now, Amazon has marveled the online and the healthcare worlds with its latest venture: Alexa’s integration with senior living communities and the healthcare ecosystem.
So, as experienced healthcare app developers, we wanted to create this comprehensive article to highlight the most innovative, unique, and groundbreaking applications of Amazon’s Alexa in the healthcare space. Let’s take a look.
What is Amazon’s Alexa?
Amazon’s Alexa is an AI-enabled, all-knowing, interactive voice assistant used on all Amazon and some non-Amazon-owned tech products, from Echo speakers and soundbars to lamps and television sets. Whether it be Siri, Cortana, or Google, you’ve probably already interacted with a voice assistant somehow, so you know that, with just the sound of your voice, you can command it to perform quick actions for you. In that sense, Amazon’s Alexa can perform various tasks on your integrated devices. For example, it can tell you the weather, do quick math operations, play your favorite playlists, control your home’s intelligent products if you have them, and it can even make jokes. Sounds cool, huh? It is, but how does it work exactly? Well, when you ask Alexa a question or interact with her in any way, you’re actually communicating with a cloud-based service from Amazon called Alexa Voice Service (AVS). As your device detects your wake word, which in this case would be “Alexa…”, it sends your request to AVS, where it is processed, confirmed, and sent back to you. This way, Amazon’s AVS handles all the intelligent voice recognition and natural language processing necessary for the service to work on any smart device with a microphone and speaker. In other words, this cloud-based service is what enables device makers, such as that Samsung smart TV you use to watch Netflix, to integrate Alexa’s features and functions into their products.
Additionally, you can communicate with your Amazon-powered voice assistant seamlessly, thanks to Alexa skills. Alexa has different skills, or apps, that help you accomplish more tasks using Alexa. For example, skills lets you play music, listen to podcasts, watch movies, order food, and much, much more. These skills are available by the thousands in the Skills Store, where some are free, and others require a subscription.
It’s important to mention that all your Alexa interactions are encrypted and secure as they transit back and forth from Amazon’s cloud service to your device. Also important to note that, while Alexa is the official given name of Amazon’s voice assistant, you can change it to “Echo” or “Amazon” if you choose to do so, a feature that comes in handy when your name, or someone you know, happens to be Alexa. Whichever name you choose, the fact is that Amazon’s voice assistant has become a handy tool to manage some menial tasks and help humans better handle their time. These benefits, and many more, are being transported to extensive industrial settings where stakeholders are starting to realize that Alexa is capable of bigger, more meaningful things than just turning music on.
Amazon's Alexa In The Healthcare Space
By now, it’s clear that Amazon has an interest in the healthcare industry. The e-commerce giant now has a strong presence in everything healthcare, from Medicare to pharma wholesale and supply chains. Are we surprised? No. Amazon isn’t only one of the largest retailers globally; it also has one of the largest workforces in the US and maybe the world. Innovation and disruption are part of the package when you’re such an online behemoth, and it was just a matter of time before the company started creating novel healthcare solutions. They have already dabbled in healthcare, and now, it’s Alexa’s turn.
The voice assistant is making strides in healthcare and assisted living facilities and is becoming a one-of-a-kind tool for the entire ecosystem. As Liron Torres, Head of Alexa Smart Properties, said in an interview: “We’re excited to extend the experiences customers already love to senior living communities and healthcare systems and give providers new ways to save time and personalize care for their patients and residents.”
Over the past year, Amazon increased the number of research scientists working on Alexa. This team of scientists and medical experts focuses on specific areas related to healthcare and works on improving and researching diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Amazon’s experts can apply the knowledge gathered from this research to Alexa. And, by using Voice User Interfaces (VUI), physicians and patients can interact with the voice assistant and reap all of the benefits that make Alexa the new frontier for healthcare. And, since they are what allow spoken human interactions with machines possible, Voice User Interfaces are used by all voice assistants on the market. However, Amazon is the market leader with 61%, followed by Google with 24%. These numbers highlight the potential of Alexa’s features and benefits to reach a broader audience within the healthcare ecosystem. And, since Alexa’s VUI is available on over 100 million devices, the chances of accessing the voice assistant’s benefits are staggering.
Additionally, as of April 2019, Alexa is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). This important milestone means that Amazon’s voice assistant now meets the requirements and regulations governing how a patient’s sensitive medical information is transferred, stored, and received. It also means Amazon has a strong competitive edge, especially in the healthcare industry, since none of the other voice assistants on the market have managed to claim HIPAA compliance as of yet. As a result, Alexa-enabled devices are now apt to handle sensitive patient data, making the voice assistant a groundbreaking and invaluable tool for stakeholders. Let’s take a look at the prominent use cases and ways Alexa is transforming healthcare.
Alexa Helps With Diabetes Management
According to the CDC, about 470 million of the world’s population live with diabetes. Around 34 million adults have diabetes in the US alone, which circles approximately 11% of the entire country’s population. These numbers are a testament to the fact that diabetes has become a burden on healthcare systems worldwide and nuance for the quality of life of those who suffer from it. Luckily, modern technologies and better medical care have led to greater awareness and personalized treatments. Nonetheless, patients who suffer from diabetes must make significant behavioral changes that permeate every aspect of their lives. These changes are no easy feat, but thanks to Alexa becoming a valuable partner in patients’ diabetes journeys, lifestyle modifications are now more accessible and manageable.
Amazon has recently released new Alexa skills, like MySugr, in the Skill Store to read and store users’ blood sugar levels and biological measurements from several internet-connected devices. This way, Amazon’s voice assistant can keep an eye on a patient’s diabetes progress and can also help issue alerts or schedule doctors’ appointments when necessary. In addition, she can also share instructions from hospitals and doctors on treatments and medication adherence, provide prescription updates, and share patient information with their physicians. On this last point, it’s important to note that Amazon has always been adamant about its commitment to protecting personal health information. And, as we mentioned earlier, Alexa is entirely HIPAA compliant, a crucial matter when dealing with health information.
Not enough? Well, in April 2018, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Merck joined forces to start the Alexa Diabetes Challenge, a sort of “contest” that invited innovators to come up with concepts and ideas that exploited Alexa’s and Amazon’s cloud technologies capabilities. The challenge’s goal was to improve the lives, interactions with Alexa, and overall experience of those individuals who struggled with type 2 diabetes. With a $250,000 prize pot, the Alexa Diabetes Challenge’s primary purpose was to find the best Alexa-powered solutions to improve the mood, health, and life of diabetes patients. Wellpepper conquered the winning spot with their solution called Sugarpod, a clinically proven and Alexa-powered platform for diabetes management. This way, by using Sugarpod, patients can interact with Alexa to manage their treatment plans and monitor their blood sugar levels, glucose, and overall progress effectively and quickly.
Diabetes is a chronic illness that is far from being completely eradicated. However, with innovative solutions like Alexa and their integration with internet-connected devices and monitoring solutions, patients can now manage their conditions better and more efficiently, increasing their life expectancy and improving their health outcomes.
Amazon’s Alexa Assists In Senior Living
Communication between senior living centers and patients and hospitals or physicians is never straightforward. Hospitals need simpler ways to interact with patients while senior living centers need faster means to connect their residents, which often have mobility issues, with family members, staff, and physicians. In addition, there are countless interoperability issues, geographical nuances, and lack of understanding among stakeholders that make senior living harder than it already is. Luckily, Amazon has considered senior citizens and their particular needs and has implemented two programs that integrate Alexa’s capabilities into hospitals and also into senior living centers. These programs are run via Alexa Smart Properties, allowing stakeholders and organizations to control devices and integrate them, creating a sort of “centralized Alexa system” that enables Alexa to handle specific tasks. This feature was particularly useful during the pandemic as it allows users to perform tasks without going outside or interacting too much with other potentially infected people.
On this point, Liron Torres, global leader for Alexa Smart Properties, said: “Early on in the pandemic, hospitals and senior living communities reached out to us and asked us to help them set up Alexa and voice in their communities.”
Alexa Smart Properties allows property managers, owners, and users to deploy Alexa-enabled devices at a larger scale than you would see at homes or small offices. Using specific skills, Alexa can perform thousand of tasks like making calls, controlling in-room temperature, lighting, automatic beds, or surfing the internet. In that sense, Alexa Smart Properties enables senior center staff and residents to use Alexa-powered devices to communicate efficiently between them or with stakeholders outside the center’s walls. For example, team members can make announcements or send important messages to residents’ rooms without visiting one by one. Residents can respond with personalized messages or even call for help, which comes in handy considering the mobility issues that most senior residents suffer from. Also important, residents can make phone or video calls to family members via Alexa-powered apps and devices without relying on the assistance of staff members. They can also keep up with the comings and goings in their community, follow the news, and check the daily weather without leaving their room or having to depend on someone else.
These Alexa devices can also streamline various senior center activities that are usually a nuance for staff members. This way, Alexa can help expedite check-ins and check-outs, keep up maintenance requests, stay on top of all residents’ movements, and handle most administrative tasks faster and efficiently. As a result, senior living facilities can become more efficient and productive, cutting costs and improving the quality of life of senior residents.
On a side note, it’s essential to add that the market for Alexa technology and Alexa-enabled devices in senior living centers has already been explored by tech companies and third-party providers for a while. For instance, in 2020, a company called K4Connect received $21 million in Series B funding to bring Amazon’s beloved voice assistant to senior centers and older adults living with disabilities. K4Connect and other companies such as Aiva and Vocera are now collaborating with Alexa Smart Properties to implement Alexa-powered devices in senior centers further and make it easier for these facilities to scale Alexa features to drive efficiency within their institutions.
In-Hospital Communication Between Patients and Staff
Staff issues in hospitals are no secret. Sure, the pandemic placed extra strain on medical centers worldwide, but even before COVID, staff shortages were already becoming a pressing issue, with studies predicting staff shortages of around 140,000 by 2030. These shortages also applied to in-home medical aides, nurses, nursing assistants, practitioners, and even medical lab technicians, meaning the entire healthcare system is at risk. Thankfully, modern technologies and internet-powered devices have been picking up most of the slack and have become a priceless tool to help alleviate some of the pressure on the healthcare ecosystem. And since the implementation of these technologies is all about creating a better hospital experience for patients, it’s essential to make good use of them to accomplish the full benefits they offer. One of these tools is Amazon’s Alexa.
With Amazon’s implementation of Alexa in the hospital arena, rooms and staffing areas are becoming intelligent environments that seamlessly promote remote communication channels and efficient interactions between stakeholders. More specifically, hospitals that use Alexa-powered devices can employ specific skills to help patients gain more control over their hospital experience. These skills enable patients to manage their entertainment options, environment, and room specifics such as bed inclination, temperature, and lighting. In addition, Amazon’s Alexa can also facilitate faster, more efficient communication channels with their healthcare providers, nurses, and doctors, who can, in turn, also communicate with their patients without having to visit room by room physically. On this last point, Amazon’s Alexa uses unique features like calling, and Drop-In, which promotes instant connections and interactions between several Alexa-enabled devices, kind of like an intercom would work.
These Alexa features have the potentials to help hospitals become more productive, less reliant on bureaucracy and paperwork, and provide a more patient-centric medical experience. Moreover, medical centers and hospitals that choose to implement Amazon’s Alexa can lessen the need for unnecessary in-person room visits, reducing physician burnout and minimizing contagion risks among staff members. Also, by providing the chance to mitigate unnecessary in-person room visits, Alexa can help reduce high supply costs by helping staff better conserve medical supplies like syringes, hand sanitizer, gloves, facemasks, gowns, and other protective equipment.
We can witness Amazon’s Alexa in action in Cedars-Sinai. The hospital rolled out Alexa Smart Properties solutions, allowing their patients to use voice commands to direct Alexa to perform tasks like turning on lights, changing TV channels, and adjusting room temperatures. Alexa was also used for more complex tasks such as communicating with their physicians and calling for help when needed. On this point, Peachy Hain, executive director of Medical and Surgical Services at Cedars Sinai, said:
“Voice is intuitive for patients, regardless of age or tech-savviness. Since it’s so easy to operate, patients can use Alexa to connect with their care team and stay entertained as soon as they settle in, while care providers can streamline tasks to make more time to care for those patients. It’s a total gamechanger for enhancing our hospital experience.”
Alexa can Improve Handicapped Patients’ Lives
As you’ve learned by now, Amazon’s Alexa is known for being a groundbreaking assistive technology in all things healthcare. However, Alexa is taking the term “assistive technology” to a whole new level in the lives of disabled people by helping make their daily routines more accessible and their conditions more manageable. This assistive technology has become the right hand of many senior and disabled citizens. It has evolved from being a simple piece of technology to becoming a daily companion and invaluable life assistant. Who would’ve guessed?
Amazon’s Alexa can significantly improve the quality of life for people with disabilities such as little or no mobility, hearing loss, total or partial blindness, compromised limbs, learning disabilities, crippling disease, or mental conditions, to name a few. In that sense, disabled patients can use Alexa-enabled devices, and the right voice commands to replace physical actions. For instance, a user can link Alexa to Amazon’s Kindle and listen to audiobooks or link it to their Fire TV Stick to operate their TV without physically adjusting the device. On a more complex level, Alexa can be paired with countless intelligent home devices and be programmed to open and close doors, turn lights on and off, open and close windows and garage doors, and even power some kitchen appliances to facilitate cooking and some basic, but crucial, chores. Added to these, and paired with the basic Alexa skills such as making Amazon purchases or making calls, other features such as setting reminders for medications, make Amazon’s voice assistant a real life-changer for disabled and physically challenged users.
More importantly, Amazon’s Alexa isn’t only practical to perform tasks and act as a personal assistant. The technology has also morphed into a companion that empowers disabled users to take charge of their lives and the tasks that would otherwise be impossible to perform. It may seem trivial for you and me to perform activities such as playing music, but for a disabled person, playing music or opening a door on their “own,” with the help of Alexa, is a complete game-changer. This way, Amazon’s voice assistant helps its users recapture the abilities and skills they once thought were lost forever. In some ways, Alexa has even become a loneliness fix. On this matter, an online review reads:
“Alexa is a life savior for me. It gives me so much independence. I feel it is becoming much like a virtual friend who is always there to entertain and help me in every possible way.”
Lastly, Amazon’s Alexa now has countless skills that disabled and physically challenged users can purchase and download to incorporate into their daily Alexa-powered routines. Here are a few of the most relevant ones:
- Ask My Buddy: Ask my Buddy is an app that works as a personal alert network that, paired with Alexa, sends and receives alerts about the user’s wellbeing. Users can ask for help, send emergency signals to family members, or simply check in to let their contacts know they’re OK.
- Open Sesame: Open Sesame is an Alexa skill that integrates with smart doors and enables physically challenged users to open and close their home’s doors without them having to perform said task physically.
- Tecla: Tecla is an app that integrates with Alexa and simplifies device usage for quadriplegic people. With Tecla, users can enjoy all Alexa features without physically handling their Alexa-powered intelligent devices.
“Alexa, can you transform healthcare?”
Can she? That’s debatable. What we can say for sure is that Amazon’s Alexa’s future within the healthcare ecosystem is bright. The voice assistant is poised to become a crucial extension of Amazon and its take on the healthcare system. Its countless features and ease of use make us think it’s just a matter of time before most stakeholders are seduced by her voice and become Alexa-dependant to power their practices and industries to improve outcomes. Similarly, outside the healthcare scenarios, we expect people to become Alexa users in their day-to-day lives and connect her to their medical needs once they realize the potential behind the voice that so swiftly turns on their TVs every evening.
In this article, we’ve only managed to cover a small part of what Alexa is doing, and will do, for patients across the globe. If you have any insights, suggestions, or questions, we’re more than glad to answer them for you! Just drop us a line!