Alexa’s HIPAA Compliance Shows A Move Toward Engaging People In Their Healthcare

By Don Brown, CEO, LifeOmic.

Don Brown

Amazon recently announced the availability of a HIPAA-eligible development environment for Alexa-enabled devices. This environment allows select developers to create healthcare “skills” or applications that enable voice-based access to personalized health information. Six healthcare companies are already operating in this new environment and have developed skills “designed to help customers manage a variety of healthcare needs at home simply using voice,” writes head of Alexa health and wellness, Rachel Jiang, in Amazon Alexa’s official announcement.

Amazon Alexa’s move to support handling of personalized health information, whether to make it easier for individuals to book a medical appointment, access hospital post-discharge instructions, provide recovery updates to physicians, check on the status of a prescription delivery or make better food choices based on their latest blood glucose measurements, is reflective of a broader movement of healthcare towards empowering the consumer. This is for good reason, because the traditional approach to healthcare is broken.

Despite astounding medical advances and technologies such as whole genome sequencing, modern health care systems aren’t helping people to live in a healthy state any longer than they did a decade ago. For example, the percentage of the U.S. population with diabetes has been steadily growing over the last decade, and the share of the world population with cancer has been stable or has risen over the past 30 years. Some of the health care problems that contribute to our stagnant health span, or the length of our disease-free lives, include unequal access to healthcare, top-down health care recommendations that don’t translate into people’s daily lives and lack of patient engagement outside of the clinic.

Popular technologies including health and fitness apps, wearables and virtual assistants, like Amazon Alexa, are forcing and enabling a revolution in healthcare. Amazon’s creation of a HIPAA-eligible environment for developers of Alexa-enabled device applications indicates that health care is moving out of the fortress of the hospital and the clinic and coming into each patient’s hands for their own control. It won’t be long before we will all be able to access our health data through devices like Alexa and mobile apps like Apple Healthkit and LifeOmic’s LIFE Extend health tracking app. This data will live more securely in the cloud and will help inform our day-to-day decisions about our health.

A voice-enabled move on precision health

Alexa’s HIPAA-eligible environment is one participant in the broader precision health movement. Precision health is a mission of most modern health care providers that involves intervening at the right time for the right patients in order to best treat and prevent disease. Precision health is practically impossible without individual patient engagement. Treating the right patient at the right time with the right drug or intervention requires having information about that person’s genome, environmental exposures, lifestyle factors, health barriers, existing health literacy and more. To not only collect this data from individuals but also to engage them in preventive screening, interventions and health behaviors that fit into their lives, providers need to meet patients where they are: on the go, not in the clinic.

The future of healthcare involves delivery of personalized health information and recommendations through smartphones and voice-enabled devices like Alexa that follow people throughout their homes and out of their doors on a daily basis. Virtual assistants that can help people more quickly and easily make decisions that are best for their health are particularly exciting. People are turning to AI assistants to help them reduce their stress, pick the right nutrition plan and more.

People will come to expect virtual health care. A visit to the doctor, let alone the hospital, has become so inconvenient that most of us are hard-pressed to even make it in for yearly appointments. Why do we have to give the same health history and medication information each time we go in, repeating it for several different people before we even see the physician? Why do our physicians always seem to recommend things that don’t translate into our lives for a myriad of reasons (we can’t afford that intervention, that medication makes us sleepy so we stop taking it)?

How many times have we left the hospital after a medical procedure in a drug-induced haze and awakened the next morning with only a vague recollection of what medications we were supposed to take when, what exercises we were supposed to do, what foods we were supposed to avoid? Now we have dozens of questions and our only option is to wait an hour on hold to speak to a nurse. What’s worse, we have no idea where to go to access our health and care information.

It’s not difficult to imagine how a virtual assistant or health care app that shares our health information with us and our care team could change this process for the better. These virtual assistants and apps can not only connect us to our healthcare teams but also recommend actions based on AI capabilities, given access to our health data. But for this to happen, technology companies must address the major privacy and cybersecurity concerns that go along with handling personal health information.

With data as sensitive as our genetic variants flowing through our inboxes and mobile apps, HIPAA-compliant software environments with cloud storage, encryption, tight access controls, patient access and removable consent processes are table stakes for any app or device that offers to help us with our wellness. We as individuals should also own and control our health care data. Amazon and others including my own company, LifeOmic, are helping to make this a reality through HIPAA-compliant applications and platforms for health data integration and patient engagement.

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