Amazon on Monday unveiled a new voice offering for hospitals and health systems, representing yet another step in the Seattle tech giant's push into healthcare.
Amazon's Alexa voice assistant next month will offer applications designed for patients to use during a hospital stay as part of Alexa Smart Properties, a division that sells Alexa devices and voice tools to property owners to deploy and centrally manage throughout their organizations. That includes apartments, hotels and senior-living facilities.
BayCare in Tampa, Florida; Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles; and Houston Methodist are among health systems that are implementing tools from Alexa Smart Properties.
The new offering grew out of work Amazon did with hospitals and health systems during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Liron Torres, global leader for Alexa Smart Properties.
Particularly early in the pandemic, healthcare organizations installed Alexa devices in patient rooms so that patients could communicate with staff without being in the same room as one another—decreasing physical contact and reducing the number of times clinicians might need to don and doff personal protective equipment during a shortage of such supplies.
"Initially, when [hospitals] reached out to us, we enabled the solution in COVID wards," Torres told Modern Healthcare. "Both patients and staff really liked it."
The new offering adds to Amazon's expanding roster of healthcare efforts, including Amazon Care, a medical care service it's selling to employer health plans, and Amazon Pharmacy, a business that lets customers purchase prescriptions that are delivered directly to their homes. Last year the company unveiled a health-tracking wearable called Amazon Halo.
Alexa has been a core part of Amazon's effort to play an intermediary role—trying to link consumers to traditional healthcare organizations in more convenient ways.
Amazon in 2019 released an Alexa application for pharmacies, through which patients could manage their medications and refill prescriptions. The company that same year opened a program for health systems, insurers and companies to create their own voice applications that handle patient data through Alexa while meeting HIPAA compliance.
Multiple health plans have launched programs to let members ask for information through voice assistants, including Amazon's Alexa and Google Home devices.
While voice assistants have the opportunity to make health information easier to access, some researchers have called into question how accurately they can parse patient requests. A May study published in the journal Frontiers in Digital Health found Google Assistant outperformed Alexa and Apple's Siri at recognizing popular generic and brand name medications.
With the new Alexa functionality, hospital and health system executives can deploy voice applications across Alexa devices in their organizations, giving patients access to tools that let them call a nurses' station, control devices in their room and request information about the facility, such as how to order food or view a cafeteria menu.
That's in part through connecting to communications systems—like Vocera and Aiva Health, according to Amazon—that are already in use at an organization.
"It's a total gamechanger for enhancing our hospital experience," said Peachy Hain, Cedars-Sinai's executive director of medical and surgical services, in a news release. "Patients can use Alexa to connect with their care team and stay entertained as soon as they settle in, while care providers can streamline tasks to make more time to care for those patients."
Torres declined to share specific pricing details of the offering but said the cost will depend on the size of the deployment and which tools an organization implements.
Most applications that a patient would use through the Alexa Smart Properties offering are anonymous, which means the patient's identity isn't linked to the interaction, Torres said. In cases where a patient's identity is important—like for tools that track a patient's medications—hospitals would develop their own tools through Alexa's program for "HIPAA-eligible" applications.