Health systems launch new HIPAA-compliant Amazon Alexa voice tools

The first 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.

Amazon announced Thursday that its voice assistant technology Alexa now has medical skills that are HIPAA-compliant, paving the way for developers to build voice skills that can securely transmit private patient health information.

The Amazon Alexa HIPAA-compliant skills kit for developers is currently available to a limited number of developers by invitation only. The other four healthcare companies to build Alexa healthcare voice tools along with Cigna and Boston Children's are Express Scripts, Providence St. Joseph Health (PSJH), Atrium Health and digital health company Livongo.

“Everyday developers are inventing with voice to build helpful and convenient experiences for their customers. These new skills are designed to help customers manage a variety of healthcare needs at home simply using voice—whether it’s booking a medical appointment, accessing hospital post-discharge instructions, checking on the status of a prescription delivery, and more,” Rachel Jiang, head of Alexa health and wellness at Amazon, wrote in a blog post.

Jiang said Amazon expects to enable additional developers to take advantage of the service as well.

As one of the first organizations to use Alexa’s HIPAA-compliant voice skills, Providence St. Joseph Health, a health system with 51 hospitals in seven states, created a voice-enabled tool that lets customers search for a nearby urgent care center and schedule a same-day Express Care appointment. 

“We’re excited to be one of the first health systems in the U.S. to build Alexa skills that help our patients connect to our providers and get faster access to care,” Aaron Martin, executive vice president and chief digital officer at Providence St. Joseph Health, told FierceHealthcare.

“This is a great way to throw out this new technology in front as many customers as possible, as fast as possible. It’s a great way to start,” Martin said. PSJH is the first healthcare provider on the West Coast to offer this technology, he said.

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Patients can use Alexa to schedule and cancel appointments at Providence and Swedish Express Care Clinics in the greater Seattle area and across 22 clinics in Washington state. The health system plans to expand the Alexa skills to an additional 15 Providence Express Care locations in Oregon and is exploring new skills development and further expansion throughout PSJH’s seven-state service area.

Bill Rogers, CEO and co-founder of Orbita, a company that provides voice and chatbot applications, called the news about Alexa and HIPAA compliance a "solid step forward" in a statement. “We are truly in the midst of a digital revolution and I'm confident it will bring positive change to patients and clinicians,” Rogers said.

“Voice in healthcare is nascent now, but there are countless use cases in healthcare for voice technology,” Martin said. He envisions voice technology supporting many different interactions in the health system, including helping with infection control or providing information to caregivers to deliver better care.

Health systems exploring voice technology for clinicians

While Amazon Alexa voice programs are more consumer-focused, other health systems are exploring voice technology paired with artificial intelligence to reduce the documentation burden on physicians.

Sutter Health, a health system based in Sacramento with 24 hospitals, is testing a voice-enabled digital assistant that uses artificial intelligence to help doctors with medical charting during patient visits. The goal is to maximize the time clinicians spend with patients and reduce the time spent documenting in the electronic health record, Sutter officials said.

With its artificial intelligence capabilities, the voice-enabled assistant, Suki, uses voice commands from physicians and the context in which they are operating to create clinically accurate notes that are pushed to the EHR system, Howard Landa, M.D., vice president of clinical informatics and EHR for Sutter Health, told FierceHealthcare.

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Over time and with use, Suki can distill a doctor’s conversation with a patient into an actionable plan based on the doctor’s known preferences and clinical practice guidelines. Among the potential benefits are that Suki can learn a doctor’s vocabulary, style and treatment plans and then anticipate what documentation the physician might need and actually “pre-deliver” information into the patient chart, Landa said.

A one-year pilot study using Suki across multiple specialties showed up to a 70% reduction in the amount of time physicians spend on medical notes, according to the company.

Sutter plans to introduce Suki into three clinical practice areas—primary care, dermatology and orthopedics.

“Those practice areas represent the extremes in the documentation experience,” Landa said. “Primary care is a broad-ranging area and covers every disease process and that’s a different workflow than orthopedic surgery, which is episodic. With dermatology, we want to see how the tool can work with a verbal description of a finding.”

“We’re trying to explore different healthcare specialties and documentation and styles that utilize the EHR to figure out where it gives us the best bang for our buck,” Landa said.

He added, “This is an exciting application for voice, both voice recognition and as an intelligent digital assistant to allow things to be presented to clinicians and interactions to occur and using voice instead of a keyboard and mouse.”