Health systems are deploying Amazon’s voice-enabled virtual assistant Alexa in an attempt to improve the patient experience.
Los Angeles-based Cedars-Sinai, Phoenix Children’s Hospital and Clearwater, Florida-based BayCare Health System are among the health systems using Alexa-enabled devices in patient rooms to assist in a range of functions, from setting room temperature to translating clinician encounters for non-English speakers.
For BayCare, it's an investment that has paid off. The system is using the technology in all 16 of its hospitals and has seen increased satisfaction among patients and clinicians.
“When we started in 2018, it was really novel,” said Craig Anderson, vice president for innovation at BayCare Health System. “Five, almost six years later, we've got thousands of these [devices] and it's showing good value.”
Anderson said patients can speak a command and the device will either call a nurse or complete the request autonomously. The virtual assistant technology's capabilities include turning on or off a television, setting room temperatures and adjusting the lighting. Anderson said BayCare is including Alexa-enabled devices in patient rooms as part of its new hospital builds.
The health system first deployed Amazon Echo devices at St Joseph’s Main Hospital in Tampa, Florida, in 2018 and followed with a second pilot hospital the next year at Winter Haven Hospital, also in Florida. By 2020, BayCare began adding Echo devices throughout the health system.
While BayCare's devices have responded to more than 900,000 requests from patients over the last year, it can't do everything people want. Among the most common requests it can't fulfill are food orders, Anderson said.
“We wish we could do that,” Anderson said.
The physical devices are the same as those available for purchase by any consumer but some of the software and capabilities for healthcare facilities are different.
“There’s this extra level of privacy and security,” said Bram Duchovnay, general manager of Alexa Smart Properties. Duchovnay said users do not need to login to access the devices and information is designed to be anonymous.
Amazon's use of Alexa in healthcare has evolved. In December 2022, Amazon stopped providing support for a program that allowed patients to share Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act-protected information with hospitals and health insurers over its Alexa. The company continues to support Alexa Smart Properties for Healthcare, which is the division that sells Alexa devices and voice tools to hospitals and providers like BayCare.
Phoenix Children's uses Alexa for translation, patient handoffs
Other health systems are using the technology to help facilitate hybrid appointments or translation services. David Higginson, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, said that once in-person appointments resumed after the COVID-19 pandemic, he noticed working parents were feeling disconnected from their child’s care.
“I heard from a bunch of spouses that said, ‘Boy, I feel like I'm cut back out of the care cycle. Is there any way that you can offer a hybrid meeting?’” Higginson said. “I started thinking, 'How can I get a device in every room, that's always ready, that isn't intimidating for the doctor?”
Higginson said Phoenix began piloting the program in 2022 in its allergy and general pediatric clinics. The hospital received a grant from its Innovation Circle program and purchased 750 devices to roll out across the enterprise.
Phoenix Children’s has also used the devices in its outpatient rooms for connecting patients and families with translation services, as well as handing off patients directly to mental health providers. One drawback, Higginson said, is that the devices at the hospital are not yet able to associate a device with a specific patient room.
“We'd love to be able to have a command that says, ‘Call the interpreter,’ and that's all you have to say,” Higginson said. “But you have to be a bit more specific, because you have to know which zoom device you want the interpreter to connect to.”
Amazon isn’t the only tech company using virtual voice-enabled assistants in healthcare. New York-based Mount Sinai adopted smart home devices manufactured by Google Nest in 2020 on a program that attempted to limit the amount of personal protective equipment used during supply shortages. Insurers such as UPMC's Health Plan and Elevance Health have also launched programs for members to use smart speakers from Google and Amazon for a virtual concierge service.