Amazon has found a new entry point into US healthcare

Alexa, can I speak to a person?
Alexa, can I speak to a person?
Image: Courtesy Amazon
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Amazon is pushing into US healthcare on several fronts. It recently launched an online pharmacy business, an at-home Covid testing service, and Amazon Care, a growing chain of clinics offering virtual and in-person doctor visits.

Now the company is eyeing hospital room bedside tables, where it plans to install Echo Shows.

Amazon Smart Properties, which packages the Alexa-enabled devices for hotels and apartment complexes, announced today (Oct. 25) that it’s bringing Echo Shows to new partners, including Boston Children’s Hospital, and Cedars-Sinai, BayCare, and Houston Methodist hospital systems, as well as to senior living communities.

Echo Shows are already valued by some caregivers

Until now, Echo Shows have mostly been used as home hubs. As with other voice-activated virtual assistants, people can ask Alexa to make video and audio calls on the Echo, or send announcements, play music and videos, and answer questions. Unlike similar products, however, Amazon’s Echos also have a “Drop-in” feature, which allows a user to automatically connect with a contact as long as that person has previously granted the caller permission. Many people who care for older parents remotely have discovered how useful that function is for people who can’t jump up to answer a call or find technology in cell phones and laptops confusing.

It’s not surprising that, as Amazon announced today, large retirement home operators like Atria and Eskaton are planning to adopt Echo Shows at scale. (Some properties have already been experimenting with the devices.)

But the fact that hospitals are now ready to test the same idea is a bigger step. Amazon’s smart properties arm has been busy expanding into the hospitality industry, where hotel guests could ask Alexa for the WiFi password instead of calling the front desk, book dinner reservations, or control the blinds. Becoming a key communication channel between doctors, nurses, and patients means much more is at stake than theater tickets or mood lighting.

Covid protocols gave Alexa a path into hospitals

Covid-19 is at least partly behind the latest leap. During the early part of the pandemic, Amazon donated Alexa devices to hospital Covid wards, at a time when people suddenly appreciated what video communication could do to make healthcare and connecting socially safer.

“As patients were receiving care away from loved ones and PPE [protective equipment] was limited, we gave care providers a solution to help connect them with their patients using the devices,” an Amazon spokesperson told Quartz. “But hospitals quickly gave us feedback that the initial solution wasn’t tailored enough to what their patients and providers were asking for. Using that feedback, we created a solution tailored specifically for hospitals and solution providers with features to address those needslike adding Drop In functionality and the ability to enable and manage HIPAA skills on devices within the property.”

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, protects how sensitive patient health information can be disclosed. (Alexa has been HIPAA-compliant since 2019.)

Healthcare staff also reported checking up on a patient or answering a question without entering a patient’s room allowed nurses and physicians to save time putting on and removing new PPE as they moved around the ward. Echos connected patients to religious services too, Liron Torres, director and general manager of Alexa Smart Properties, said in a conversation with Alexa developers this spring.

What will Echos in hospitals do?

As the pandemic (hopefully) recedes, Alexa will seemingly become more of a convenience for hospital patients. They might ask Alexa for menu options every day or request an extra pillow from a nursing station, but also connect with a doctor for conversations that don’t require in-person visits, all by just speaking into the air. The hospital could also broadcast announcements directly to every room, just as a hotel might advertise that night’s lounge act.

“Voice is intuitive for patients, regardless of age or tech savviness,” Peachy Hain, executive director of Medical and Surgical Services at Cedars-Sinai, said in a press statement about the new development. Alexa can help entertain patients, “while care providers can streamline tasks to make more time to care for those patients.”

A nurse in scrubs speaks to an Echo Show in a product demo photo
In-hospital telemedicine?
Image: Courtesy Amazon

Amazon also emphasized in an email to Quartz that personal user information is not entered into the device; all data is entirely anonymous and voice recordings are not saved. To protect data privacy, hospital patients and retirement home residents will not be able to connect their personal Amazon accounts to the Echos—at least not at this time. People who still do not feel comfortable with the technology—fearing hackers, perhaps—will be able to switch off the machine’s ability to hear its “wake” word, shut down other communication functions, or unplug the machine entirely.

As Amazon burrows deeper into healthcare infrastructure, it is understandable to worry about what it means to give the impossibly sprawling and powerful tech and e-commerce company an opening into yet another dimension of our lives and livelihoods, particularly when it has been known to undervalue its own warehouse employees, rely heavily on robotics for its operations, and allow AI systems to wreak havoc in its employees’ lives.

The move may also spark worry that caregivers might leave too much work to virtual encounters or that humans will be entirely removed from certain caregiving interactions, depending on the types of questions Alexa can answer or the tasks it can take on and automate. When hospital administrators look for new “efficiencies,” patient care sometimes suffers.

Then again, the retirement home and healthcare industries are facing serious labor shortages that are expected to only worsen, making the arrival of AI and automation applications in this space inevitable. The only question was which big brand company would get there first.