Dr Alexa is now available

By Chelsea Ukoha* and Bianca Phillips**
Monday, 13 May, 2019

Dr Alexa is now available

In the future it is likely that voice recognition technologies will be utilised in mainstream health care, offering a diverse patient experience and reducing the administrative load on physicians, which is a major cause of burnout. It is estimated that by 2020, half of all internet searches will be conducted by voice-first rather than through typed search inputs.

Voice user interface (VUI) is a speech recognition technology that allows people to use voice as the input to control a range of devices. Google Home, Amazon Alexaand Apple Siriare examples. VUI can already analyse medical questions in order to achieve specific in-clinic uses and/or to aid healthcare delivery to patients within their homes. The recent announcement by Amazon that Alexa has achieved compliance with HIPAA has signaled that the vision for voice-first technologies is being realised, and demonstrates that voice-first health is an area that will need to be considered by early to mid-career healthcare professionals.

Alexa is HIPAA compliant

As mentioned, Amazon’s  voice-interactive device ‘Alexa’ is now HIPAA compliant through the new Alexa Skills Kit. The Alexa Skills Kit enables Alexa to be utilised in particular healthcare capacities to transmit patients’ protected health information (PHI) in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

The purpose of HIPAA is to protect the collection and use of PHI. Amazon is now able to execute business associate agreements (BAAs) with HIPAA-covered entities, such as hospitals, to safeguard data in compliance with HIPAA guidelines. BAAs are generally required contracts for any organisation (a business associate) providing a HIPAA-eligible service to a covered entity.

This is a significant milestone in the delivery of voice-of-health technologies as, up until now, compliance with these laws has been a barrier preventing the transmission of PHI. However, Alexa will need to achieve compliance with Australian laws before its healthcare skills can be offered here.

The healthcare skills are at present only available to applications developers by invitation only, however, Amazon has stated that it expects to include additional companies and skills. The new healthcare skills that were launched for US consumers are as follows:

  • Express Scripts (a Pharmacy Services Organisation): this enables the status of home delivery prescriptions to be checked and notifications provided via Alexa when shipment of prescriptions has taken place.
  • Cigna Health Today (by Cigna, the global health service company): this skill enables certain eligible employees to monitor their health care using Alexa and receive incentives to do so.
  • My Children's Enhanced Recovery After Surgery (ERAS) (by Boston Children's Hospital): progress on recovery of children at Boston Children’s Hospital and information about postoperative care can be provided to parents and caregivers via Alexa.
  • Swedish Health Connect (by Providence St. Joseph Health, a healthcare system with 51 hospitals across 7 states and 829 clinics): the skill enables a patient to locate an urgent care center in proximity to them and schedule a same-day appointment.
  • Atrium Health (a healthcare system with more than 40 hospitals and 900 care locations throughout North and South Carolina and Georgia): this skill enables customers in North and South Carolina to locate an urgent care centre near them and schedule a same-day appointment.
  • Livongo (a consumer digital health company that creates new and different experiences for people with chronic conditions): members can ask Alexa for their blood sugar readings, blood sugar measurement trends, and receive insights and Health Nudges that are personalised.

Devices like Amazon Alexa are being adopted for use in hospitals. Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/DanielDusPhotography

Purported benefits and oversight

VUI may make it easier for patients to access medical information. Given that VUI mimics ‘human’ interactions, some patients may feel more comfortable when speaking about their medical issues to a VUI device than when speaking to a human because they feel less pressure and judgment. Therefore, VUI may in certain contexts remove healthcare barriers and improve the patient experience.

Furthermore, patients can now use Amazon Alexa as a personal assistant to find urgent care facilities, determine their blood sugar readings, find wait-time information and schedule appointments. The expansion of VUI allows patients to become more engaged in their healthcare delivery.

An additional benefit is that VUI devices can help physicians save vital time writing patient notes because they can speak into a VUI device more quickly than they can write or type. VUI devices could thus potentially ease the pressures associated with administrative tasks.

There are questions of whether VUI could help reduce errors with the input and review of information contained in patient management systems. This is of particular interest in light of recent cases of medical mistakes and deaths from use of electronic patient management systems. Thus, the ability for VUI to benefit health care in this regard will be in its ability to accurately detect words spoken and transcribe these, as well as extract relevant data with high-level accuracy; purported benefits that will no doubt be subject to clinical trials in the future to determine the ability of VUI to reduce mistakes and achieve clinical benefits.

We also anticipate that privacy, ownership and control of data matters will require additional consideration by lawmakers, voice-of-technology companies and users as the range of medical skills expands.

Key points


  • The use of voice technology in retrieving patient medical records and scheduling appointments will likely be universal throughout the healthcare industry.
  • By staying updated with healthcare technology trends, a physician who is aware and well informed about these innovative technologies will be able to improve their practice and further improve the patient experience.
  • With Alexa’s HIPAA-compliant capabilities, VUI use has the capacity to deliver more for patients and healthcare providers, however, Australians will need to wait until compliance is achieved here.
  • The purported benefits of VUI will need to be tested for their ability to reduce mistakes and achieve improved health care quality and outcomes.




*Chelsea Ukoha has a Juris Doctor from Howard University School of Law. She is committed to bridging the gap between legal advocates, healthcare professionals, and healthcare providers in order to improve the disparities within the healthcare system.

**Bianca Phillips is a lawyer and digital health law influencer, presenting her research on lawmaking to Australian and international audiences, including as a guest on the Voice First Health Podcast, and later this year at the Voice of Healthcare Summit at Harvard Medical School.

Top image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/rashadaliyev

Related Articles

Debunking COVID-19 myths with science communication

UNSW Sydney medical scientist Associate Professor Darren Saunders explains how scientists cut...

How legacy operating systems and firmware could endanger patients

Healthcare organisations will have to consider the interoperability between emerging technologies...

How robots could deliver urgent triage in our hospitals

As the urgency of maintaining population health becomes a pressing reality, governments and...

  • All content Copyright © 2020 Westwick-Farrow Pty Ltd