Alexa is finding a voice in healthcare. Cedars-Sinai, Boston Children's sign on for new Amazon smart hospital service

Patients can ask Alexa for things they need—"Alexa, tell my nurse I need a pillow." The use of artificial intelligence to interpret patient intent enables the message to be sent to the appropriate care team member using existing hospital communication systems. (Amazon)

Amazon is launching a new service for hospitals that will embed its voice technology deeper into clinical settings at scale.

As part of Alexa Smart Properties, the service will simplify how hospitals and senior living facilities deploy and manage Alexa-enabled devices across their properties, the company said.

These two solutions connect to the tech giant's vision for Alexa, Liron Torres, global leader of Alexa Smart Properties, told Fierce Healthcare.

"We believe that ambient computing can dramatically change and improve the way our customers use and interact with technology," she said, noting voice technology is "natural, intuitive and accessible."

"The magic of ambient computing is that it just works. You don’t have to learn new technology or new devices," she said.

Using Amazon Alexa devices in hospital rooms, patients can keep in touch with their families, connect with care team members, easily access news and information and play music, according to the company. Patients can ask Alexa for things they need—"Alexa, tell my nurse I need a pillow." The use of artificial intelligence to interpret patient intent enables the message to be sent to the appropriate care team member using existing hospital communication systems. 

Senior living communities like Atria and Eskaton and hospitals including Boston Children’s, Cedars-Sinai, BayCare and Houston Methodist have signed on to add Alexa to some facilities.

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"Voice is intuitive for patients, regardless of age or tech-savviness," said Peachy Hain, executive director of Medical and Surgical Services at Cedars-Sinai, in a statement. "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 game changer for enhancing our hospital experience."

Ambient computing in healthcare is a space to watch, with Microsoft's eye-popping $19.7 billion acquisition of speech recognition and healthcare AI company Nuance.

Hospitals are keen to integrate voice technology into the patient experience, but one challenge has been managing the devices at scale, Torres said.

"One key thing we are focused on is accessibility, and not just patients but also the property to be able to easily deploy the devices, manage the devices and interact with existing systems so they are not adding additional systems," she said.

The service builds on pilot projects deployed at several hospitals two years ago, an initiative that accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In January, Clearwater, Florida-based BayCare Health System piloted the technology at two hospitals in 2019 and then in January plans to deploy Amazon Alexa devices in 2,500 rooms across its 14 hospitals. The aim is to provide patients with smart rooms that allow them to connect with their care team and control devices like the television—all hands-free, the health system said.

Also in 2019, Cedars-Sinai piloted Amazon Alexa devices in more than 100 patient rooms to enable patients to interact hands-free with nurses and control their entertainment.

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Early during the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals and senior living communities reached out to Amazon to enable Alexa voice solutions at their properties, Torres said. "They saw that voice can help enhance, customize and personalize the customer experience and also enable residents to connect with loved ones when visiting hours were limited. Hospitals also wanted to connect patients with caregivers through voice technology, as supplies of PPE (personal protective equipment) were limited."

Based on feedback from the early pilots, Amazon added features to support senior living facilities and hospitals, such as the ability for video capabilities and Drop In, which enables providers to communicate with patients without the need to enter their rooms. This enables hospitals to increase productivity, conserve medical supplies and protective equipment, such as masks, gloves, and gowns, and free up staff time to provide more personalized care, according to Torres.

Hospitals also can provide information customized to their facility, like notifications about schedule changes or cafeteria menus, and skill experiences like games and podcasts. With the smart room technology, patients can communicate with their care staff, control devices in their room or stay informed and entertained with news and music, just by asking Alexa.

Alexa Smart Properties tools and application programming interfaces are designed to make it easy for solution providers to manage and service a fleet of Alexa-enabled devices quickly, remotely and at scale. By working with solution providers like K4Connect, Lifeline Senior Living, Aiva—a voice assistant platform for hospitals—and Vocera, senior living and healthcare properties can use Alexa Smart Properties to customize large numbers of Alexa-enabled devices, according to the tech giant.

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Hospitals can also build and enable HIPAA-eligible skills, like medication tracking, to connect care providers with patients in an environment designed to protect their health information.

Torries said Amazon designed Alexa Smart Properties senior living and healthcare solutions with privacy in mind. No personal information is shared with Alexa to use the device, and voice recordings are not saved. Amazon implements administrative, technical and physical safeguards for protected health information received as part of HIPAA-eligible skill interactions.

The current use cases for Alexa Smart Properties are just the "tip of the iceberg," Torres said. "Our goal is to be anywhere that customers want Alexa. We listen to our customers and one of the things we're hearing from hospitals is that they want to use it in more use cases and we will work with them to understand the need."