UPMC Health Plan has launched a virtual concierge service that integrates into its 4 million members' Amazon Alexa and Google Home devices, joining a growing number of health insurers integrating plan information with smart speakers. The Pittsburgh-based insurer, an arm of the UPMC academic medical center, launched the service on Google Home in February and Amazon Alexa in March. Since then, members have engaged with the digital voice assistant twice as long compared with public website users, said Chris Daley, director of digital technology services at UPMC Health Plan. There is no cost to the user.
"We're seeing this growth in usage," Daley said. "One of the top places folks use this technology is in their home and, as more people are in their home more, it's become more and more useful."
Members can ask the digital assistants basic questions, like learning about UPMC's telehealth offerings, where to find the COVID-19 vaccine, understanding basic health insurance terms and more. A UPMC member survey found that 40% said they would use a voice concierge service to learn more about the health plan. Daley also pointed to data that showed that individuals engage with these services more frequently than with public websites or apps, saying "users who used it monthly now use a weekly and users who used it weekly now use it daily, so we're seeing this kind of growth in the usage."
By integrating information with Amazon Alexa and Google Home, Daley said that UPMC is also ensuring these devices only pull accurate information about the plan directly from its website. The chatbot cannot answer any information behind individuals' personal portal. This is the route that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan has gone with its Alexa integration, saying that "national privacy regulations prevent Amazon Alexa from using any identifiable health information. Because of this, the MIBlue Skill doesn't allow you to access your member coverage information."
"We don't know anything about who the users are and we don't want to know that," Daley said. "It's really about giving them a convenient way to make public information easier for them to get."
Over time, he said UPMC will increase the content individuals can request from their home voice device. By making it easier for members to access basic information about their benefits, the insurer could be looking to this as an investment in preventive services, said Adam Block, a New York-based health economist, which, in turn, could lower healthcare costs. While UPMC is sticking with answering basic questions about in-network coverage, the insurer could eventually move into the area of scheduling appointments, promoting medication adherence, offering personal claims information and more. This is the route that Anthem has gone with its smart speaker integration.
The Indianapolis-based insurer, which operates Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans in 14 states, said that Amazon Alexa uses its voice inputs to improve the quality of its AI system, only listens in on active requests and "has no way to identify who asked the question." Anthem added that Alexa does not record audio unless prompted by the user, a finding at odds with reports that Amazon's digital assistant is always eavesdropping.
"Privacy is always an issue and, personally, I don't own an Alexa as a result of this. I am concerned it listens when you're not speaking to them," Block said. "But if you've enabled this, you've made that choice."
By tracking user requests with Alexa, Amazon could be working to start its own health insurer, a venture it had attempted to do with the now-defunct Haven, Block said. The Seattle-based e-commerce giant also could follow UnitedHealth Group's Optum subsidiary, and sell the data it collects to interested third parties. Optum now represents the Minnetonka, Minn.-based healthcare company's fastest-growing subsidiary.
"I don't think they will enter health insurance in the near-term," Block said. "But that doesn't take away its reach. Amazon has a very broad desire to get into a space that is notoriously consumer unfriendly, and built its empire by being easily accessible."