Amazon Alexa launches its first HIPAA-compliant medical skills

Alexa is moving into healthcare. Following a trial of Amazon’s smart speakers in patients’ rooms at Cedars-Sinai, the company this morning announced an invite-only program allowing select developers to create and launch HIPAA-compliant healthcare skills for Alexa. The skills allow consumers to ask the virtual assistant for help with things like booking an appointment, accessing hospital post-discharge instructions, checking on the status of a prescription delivery and more.

Amazon says the program will only allow select covered entities and business associates subject to HIPAA (the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) to create these skills. Amazon itself provides the HIPAA-eligible environment for skill building, while the developers themselves are required to comply with the applicable laws.

This is a significant step for Amazon, as it means voice app developers who follow HIPAA guidelines can now create skills for Alexa.

This is an area Amazon has focused on for some time. According a report from last year by CNBC, Amazon was building out a healthcare team with Alexa in order to make the voice assistant useful in the healthcare industry. This included working through the complex HIPAA regulations that would be required to do so.

In addition, Amazon itself is venturing into healthcare alongside Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan Chase, which have together teamed up to take on rising healthcare costs for employees. Amazon last year acquired online pharmacy PillPack for less than $1 billion. And the company’s AWS unit is expanding its HIPAA-compliant capabilities. This included the launch of Amazon Comprehend Medical, a machine learning tool that gathers information from things like doctors’ notes and patient health records.

Today, Amazon Alexa is providing its “HIPAA eligible environment” to voice app developers on an invite-only basis in the U.S., but says it expects to enable more developers to access this capability in the future.

Developers accepted into the program will be able to use the Alexa Skills Kit, which now supports skills that are able to transmit and receive protected health information.

This expansion to healthcare is likely to raise questions — as well it should. While it’s one thing to allow Alexa to turn on your lights or play some music, allowing our smart speakers and their voice assistants access to medical information is a much further leap. Consumers will need to understand how Amazon is securing their data before they feel comfortable using health and medical skills.

Amazon tells us its applies several layers of security to all skill data, including encryption, access controls and securely storing data in the Amazon cloud. HIPAA, meanwhile, includes other specific requirements, like identifying protected health information (PHI) and controlling and auditing access to PHI.

Amazon today is launching six skills that demonstrate the potential of healthcare-related skills. These come from healthcare providers, payors, pharmacy benefit managers and digital health coaching companies.

One skill from Cigna, for example, allows eligible employees to manage their health improvement goals and earn wellness incentives; another from Livongo lets members ask Alexa for their last blood sugar reading; parents and caregivers can give their care teams updates at Boston Hospital’s ERAS (Enhanced Recovery After Surgery) program.

And others, from Express Scripts, Atrium Health and Swedish Health Connect, offer updates on prescription delivery or allow for appointment making.

The healthcare skill publishers are excited about the ability to reach their customers through voice technology.

“Boston Children’s Hospital has long believed that voice technology has the potential to substantially improve the healthcare experience for both consumers and clinicians. We began this journey with one of the first Amazon Alexa skills from a hospital four years ago and are thrilled to participate in the initial launch of Amazon Alexa’s HIPAA-eligible service for developers,” said John Brownstein, chief innovation officer, Boston Children’s Hospital, in a statement.

“With our new Express Scripts skill, we are trying to make it easier for people to make better-informed health care decisions. In particular, we believe voice technology, like Alexa, can make it easy for people to stay on the right path by tracking the status of their mail-order prescription, helping us further solve the costly and unhealthy problem of medication non-adherence,” said Mark Bini, vice president of Innovation and Member Experience, Express Scripts.

Amazon launched a site for its new healthcare skills, which offers a sign-up form for those who want to get “updates.” The form, however, also includes a place to describe the healthcare skill use cases you have in mind — meaning Amazon is using this to vet the next round of developers to invite to the program.