Recently it was announced by Amazon that Alexa devices now have the capacity to hold the medical information of patients. At Blue Frontier, we love to see technology taking a significant role in healthcare due to the potential for medical services to become more streamlined and efficient.
Of course, with systems such as Alexa, there is some concern regarding possible misuse of medical data as for Amazon, healthcare is not the company’s sole priority, and cybersecurity professionals such as Pamela Hepp, a member of the Cybersecurity and Data Privacy Group at Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney, believe such data could be used for marketing purposes1.
In accordance with the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), healthcare practitioners tend to only impart a patient’s medical information to the patient themselves or share this information with other healthcare professionals (via medical records).
Amazon has stated that despite not being a healthcare company primarily, Alexa can adhere to HIPAA guidelines. Due to their belief that they can offer a secure and safe service to healthcare organisations, Amazon has already attracted six different health-oriented companies to work with the Alexa system to develop their own voice programs.
Mark Bini from Express Scripts has explained that “[they] are trying to make it easier for people to make better-informed health care decisions. In particular, [they] believe voice technology, like Alexa, can make it easy for people stay on the right path by tracking the status of their mail order prescription, helping [them] further solve the costly and unhealthy problem of medication non-adherence”2.
Other programs launched having used Alexa voice technology include the management of blood sugar levels by the company Livongo. With this system patients can receive prompts (Health Nudges) personalised to them and their condition, they can check previous blood sugar readings and identify trends in these readings.
A patient can ask Alexa to check their blood sugar reading and the device will access their data via the Livongo cloud in order to tell them the reading. Livongo has stressed that Amazon cannot access the Livongo cloud and therefore nor can they access patient data. Although Amazon may not be a healthcare company, the companies using the Alexa voice technology are, and therefore they are more likely to effectively manage the health data in accordance with medical regulations.
There is some scepticism surrounding the self-declaration of HIPAA compliance though, as there is no official certification process to determine whether an organization is following HIPAA requirements, but it is rather a process of self-assessment whereby the companies themselves can conclude whether they are HIPAA compliant. It can be expensive for companies to put in place the impenetrable security infrastructure required. But this does not mean that these companies are not adhering the HIPAA guidelines, as the risk to their business would be great if the Office of Civil Rights or Federal Trade Commission were to carry out an investigation into alleged HIPAA violations3.
There is a lot to be excited about with the development of Alexa-enabled healthcare solutions, as the difficulty people have scheduling and attending doctors’ appointments can poorly impact their health. Whether as a result of fully booked up surgeries or due to busy lifestyles, Alexa could help people keep track of their health care schedules.
Services like Livongo’s blood sugar management system, which allows patients with diabetes to quickly track and check their blood sugar effectively without the worry of human error in remembering or calculating readings, offer healthcare solutions from the comfort of your home.
Although such systems have not yet overtaken human medical professionals, they can provide a sense of health support and reassurance between doctors’ appointments.