Alexa: A Home Health Hub?

MAY 14, 2018
Previously, I had commented on the use of home voice assistants as possible tools for health. This could include asking medical questions, or even voice-communications with the pharmacy, such as "Alexa, refill [medication name] for me." My colleague, David Berkowitz also has his pharmacy students learn to code for them, which I think is a fascinating application of pharmacy knowledge and where the future is going.
 
Now, it seems Amazon is actively pursuing this possibility with a recent news story from CNBC giving some insights.1  According to the article, Amazon is building a division within their Alexa group called "Health & Wellness." The primary role of this new division will be to find a role in the health care field and comply with HIPAA. This has been an issue, as many people that have wanted to use Alexa for health care projects hit a firm wall when the HIPAA issue comes up.
 
If Amazon can make it work, however, there are a lot of opportunities. They seem to be interested in diabetes management, care for newborns, and care for elderly patients at this time. This makes sense, as diabetes management has a lot of disease-related products and services tied to it and Alexa could coordinate. Need medications refilled or test strips delivered? Need to schedule that medical appointment? What about healthy diet options that Alexa can order? I see a lot of possibilities here. As CNBC mentions, Amazon worked with Merck back in 2017 to host a challenge for people to build apps/skills for Alexa focused on diabetes management called the "Alexa Diabetes Challenge." Interestingly, the 5 finalists ideas focused on some cool interventions. 2 This included a home coach to provide mood-based recommendations, another service integrating wearables for tracking of habits, and a meal plannings service. The winner, Sugarpod, came up with a multimodal solution using video and voice to support patients with adherence to therapy and tracker tools such as a smart foot scanner for ulcers. But I think this is just one small niche for these platforms.
 
As I had previously covered, Amazon does have it's own OTC line that seems to be expanding.This could be a product line slid into the home voice assistant platform in several ways. Imagine, for instance, you're at home and your kid starts coughing, or you start sneezing. Maybe Alexa starts asking you if you are feeling alright. Maybe Alexa knows it's a change of seasons and allergies are high in your area based on geo-mapped data and some smart analytics. Then Alexa asks if you'd like to order some allergy medications from Amazon to be delivered the next day. Who knows, this could be the future of personalized medical deliveries since we've started to invite these machines into our homes.
 
I see plenty of opportunities for pharmacy. I don't expect the chain pharmacies to start marketing their own devices. Instead, they will likely team up with Amazon/Google/Apple to get their apps or other services onto those platforms. It could consist of something as simple as refilling medications, and perhaps having the drugs delivered, with maybe different products. It could also be asking what the wait time is for a nearby minute clinic and having you entered into the workflow instead of waiting in the sick room. Hospitals will also probably be engaged and can use it for post-discharge care to some extent. I am excited to see where this will all go.
 
References:
  1. Amazon is building a 'health & wellness’ team within Alexa as it aims to upend health care. CNBC. May 10, 2018. Available at https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/10/amazon-is-building-a-health-and-wellness-team-within-alexa.html
  2. Alexa Diabetes Challenge. Available at http://www.alexadiabeteschallenge.com/


Timothy Aungst, PharmD
Timothy Aungst, PharmD
Timothy Dy Aungst, PharmD, is an associate professor of pharmacy practice at MCPHS University. He graduated from Wilkes University Nesbitt School of Pharmacy and completed a PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Residency at St. Luke's University Hospital, and then a Clinical Geriatric Fellowship at MCPHS University. He is passionate about the rise of technology in health care and its application to pharmacy. He has published primarily on the role of mobile technology and mHealth, and made multiple national and international presentations on those topics. He blogs at TheDigitalApothecary.com, is a Co-Host of FurtureDose.tech a podcast part of the Pharmacy Podcast Network, and you can find him on Twitter @TDAungst.
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