Amazon rolls out new Alexa feature to let consumers refill prescriptions

Amazon is rolling out medication reminders as a new feature of its Alexa device in partnership with pharmacy chain Giant Eagle.

The new feature, announced Tuesday, could be the first step in the tech giant's broader effort to use the voice assistant to help consumers manage their medications.

The new voice-enabled medication reminder feature represents "day one" for Amazon and healthcare, Rachel Jiang, who leads the Alexa health and wellness team, wrote in a blog post Tuesday.

But Amazon expects to learn from the initial launch and plans to expand the feature to more pharmacies next year, Jiang wrote.

The new skill was developed in collaboration with medication management company Omnicell, Jiang wrote. For the initial launch, Amazon partnered with Giant Eagle Pharmacy, which operates pharmacies in 200 locations in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. Customers of the pharmacy chain will be able to set medication reminders by using their pharmacy prescription information and to request prescription refills by using Alexa devices.

In April, the tech giant paved the way for Alexa to used in healthcare when it announced its Amazon Alexa HIPAA-compliant skills kit for developers. As part of that invite-only program, six healthcare organizations including Cigna and Boston Children's Hospital are rolling out new HIPAA-compliant Amazon Alexa voice tools enabling patients to check prescriptions and schedule doctor visits using voice technology.

The U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) also has partnered with Amazon to enable patients to access verified health information using Alexa devices. The NHS touts the initiative as particularly helpful for elderly patients, blind patients and those who cannot access the internet. By using Amazon’s voice-assisted technology, patients can use simple voice commands to get NHS-verified information in answer to their health-related questions.

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Jiang said Amazon developed the new feature after recognizing that many customers were already using the voice assistant to remind them to take medications.

"Some customers shared feedback to improve the reminders feature for this use case—for example, by adding more time frames like 'twice a day'—and others shared personal stories about how this feature benefited them and their families. With each story, we continued to think about how we could help customers track and manage their health and wellness from home," Jiang wrote.

The voice-enabled medication reminder builds on Amazon's work to provide a HIPAA-eligible environment for skill developers, Jiang said, with a strong focus on privacy and security. 

The medication management features use multiple layers of verification to ensure that only consumers are able to access their prescription information via Alexa, she said.

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"Alexa will first recognize you by your voice, then ask you for the personal passcode you created during the setup process. If the voice profile or personal passcode does not match with the account, information will not be relayed. Additionally, just as is the case with previously introduced Alexa healthcare skills, interactions with this skill are also redacted in the Alexa app to maintain privacy," Jiang wrote in the blog post.

Customers can review and delete their voice recordings on the website, via the Alexa app or by voice. 

"We believe this new Alexa feature will help simplify the way people manage their medication by removing the need to continuously think about what medications they’ve taken that day or what they need to take," Jiang wrote. "We want to make it easy for people to get the information they need and to manage their healthcare needs at home while maintaining the privacy and security of their information, and hope this feature is a step toward that vision."

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The Giant Eagle Pharmacy skill on Amazon Alexa helps patients more easily integrate prescription management into their everyday lives, Jim Tsipakis, Giant Eagle senior vice president of pharmacy, said in a statement. “We’re passionate about making care as accessible as possible for our patients, and this unique collaboration with Amazon has enabled us to utilize voice technology to do just that."

Integrating with Amazon Alexa makes it possible for patients to manage their medications by simply using voice, providing greater independence for older adults, noted Danny Sanchez, vice president and general manager, population health solutions at Omnicell.

"This new technology is just the beginning, as we continue to identify straightforward and easy-to-use pharmacy tasks that voice-powered devices can perform in the real world to keep the patient at the center of care and streamline pharmacy workflow," Sanchez said.