Since Alexa is now programed to be compliant with HIPAA privacy rules, it’s likely similar voice assistance technologies will soon become available in US healthcare as well

Shortages of physicians and other types of caregivers—including histopathologists and pathology laboratory workers—in the United Kingdom (UK) has the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) seeking alternate ways to get patients needed health and medical information. This has prompted a partnership with Amazon to use the Alexa virtual assistant to answer patients healthcare inquiries.

Here in the United States, pathologists and clinical laboratory executives should take the time to understand this development. The fact that the NHS is willing to use a device like Alexa to help it maintain access to services expected by patients in the United Kingdom shows how rapidly the concept of “virtual clinical care” is moving to become mainstream.

If the NHS can make it work in a health system serving 66-million people, it can be expected that health insurers, hospitals, and physicians in the United States will follow that example and deploy similar virtual health services to their patients.

For these reasons, all clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups will want to develop a strategy as to how their organizations will interact with virtual health services and how their labs will want to deploy similar virtual patient information services.

Critical Shortages in Healthcare Services

While virtual assistants have been answering commonly-asked health questions by mining popular responses on the Internet for some time, this new agreement allows Alexa to provide government-endorsed medical advice drawn from the NHS website.

By doing this, the NHS hopes to reduce the burden on healthcare workers by making it easier for UK patients to access health information and receive answers to commonly-asked health questions directly from their homes, GeekWire reported. 

“The public needs to be able to get reliable information about their health easily and in ways they actually use. By working closely with Amazon and other tech companies, big and small, we can ensure that the millions of users looking for health information every day can get simple, validated advice at the touch of a button or voice command,” Matthew Gould, CEO of NHSX, a division of the NHS that focuses on digital initiatives, told GeekWire

The Verge reported that when the British government officially announced the partnership in a July press release, the sample questions that Alexa could answer included:

  • Alexa, how do I treat a migraine?
  • Alexa, what are the symptoms of the flu?
  • Alexa, what are the symptoms of chickenpox?

“We want to empower every patient to take better control of their healthcare and technology like this is a great example of how people can access reliable, world-leading NHS advice from the comfort of their home, reducing the pressure on our hardworking GPs (General Practitioners) and pharmacists,” said Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, in the press release.

MD Connect notes that the NHS provides healthcare services free of charge to more than 66-million individuals residing in the UK. With 1.2 million employees, the NHS is the largest employer in Europe, according to The Economist. That article also stated that the biggest problem facing the NHS is a staff shortage, citing research conducted by three independent organizations:

Their findings indicate “that NHS hospitals, mental-health providers, and community services have 100,000 vacancies, and that there are another 110,000 gaps in adult social care. If things stay on their current trajectory, the think-tanks predict that there will be 250,000 NHS vacancies in a decade,” The Economist reported.

UK’s Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (above), defends the NHS’ partnership with Amazon Alexa, saying millions already use the smart speaker for medical advice and it’s important the health service uses the “best of modern technology.” Click here to watch the video. (Video and caption copyright: Sky News.)

“This idea is certainly interesting and it has the potential to help some patients work out what kind of care they need before considering whether to seek face-to-face medical help, especially for minor ailments that rarely need a GP appointment, such as coughs and colds that can be safely treated at home,” Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chairman at the Royal College of General Practitioners, and Chair of the Board Of Directors/Trustees at National Academy of Social Prescribing, told Sky News.

“However,” she continued, “it is vital that independent research is done to ensure that the advice given is safe, otherwise it could prevent people seeking proper medical help and create even more pressure on our overstretched GP service.”

Amazon has assured consumers that all data obtained by Alexa through the NHS partnership will be encrypted to ensure privacy and security, MD Connect notes. Amazon also promised that the personal information will not be shared or sold to third parties.

Alexa Now HIPAA Compliant in the US

This new agreement with the UK follows the announcement in April of a new Alexa Skills Kit that “enables select Covered Entities and their Business Associates, subject to the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), to build Alexa skills that transmit and receive protected health information (PHI) as part of an invite-only program. Six new Alexa healthcare skills from industry-leading healthcare providers, payors, pharmacy benefit managers, and digital health coaching companies are now operating in our HIPAA-eligible environment.”

Developers of voice assistance technologies can freely use these Alexa skills, which are “designed to help customers manage a variety of healthcare needs at home simply using voice—whether it’s booking a medical appointment, accessing hospital post-discharge instructions, checking on the status of a prescription delivery, and more,” an Amazon Developer Alexa blog states.

The blog lists the HIPAA-compliant Alexa skills as:

  • Express Scripts: Members can check the status of a home delivery prescription and can request Alexa notifications when their prescription orders are shipped.
  • Cigna Health Today by Cigna (NYSE:CI): Eligible employees with one of Cigna’s large national accounts can now manage their health improvement goals and increase opportunities for earning personalized wellness incentives.
  • My Children’s Enhanced Recovery After Surgery (ERAS) (by Boston Children’s Hospital: Parents and caregivers of children in the ERAS program can provide their care teams updates on recovery progress and receive information regarding their post-op appointments.
  • Swedish Health Connect by Providence St. Joseph Health, a healthcare system with 51 hospitals across seven states and 829 clinics: Customers can find an urgent care center near 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: Customers in North and South Carolina can find an urgent care location near them and schedule a same-day appointment.
  • Livongo, a digital health company that creates new and different experiences for people with chronic conditions: Members can query their last blood sugar reading, blood sugar measurement trends, and receive insights and Health Nudges that are personalized to them.

HIPAA Journal notes: “This is not the first time that Alexa skills have been developed, but a stumbling block has been the requirements of HIPAA Privacy Rules, which limit the use of voice technology with protected health information. Now, thanks to HIPAA compliant data transfers, the voice assistant can be used by a select group of healthcare organizations to communicate PHI without violating the HIPAA Privacy Rule.”

Steady increases associated with the costs of medical care combined with a shortage of healthcare professionals on both continents are driving trends that motivate government health programs and providers to experiment with non-traditional ways to interact with patients.

New digital and Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools like Alexa may continue to emerge as methods for providing care—including clinical laboratory and pathology advice—to healthcare consumers.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

“Alexa, How Do I Treat a Migraine?” Amazon and NHS Unveil Partnership

Amazon’s Alexa Will Deliver NHS Medical Advice in the UK

NHS Health Information Available Through Amazon’s Alexa

UK’s National Health Service Taps Amazon’s Alexa to Field Common Medical Questions

What Happens When Amazon Alexa Gives Health Advice?

Alexa, Where Are the Legal Limits on What Amazon Can Do with My Health Data?

Amazon Alexa Offering NHS Health Advice

A Shortage of Staff Is the Biggest Problem Facing the NHS

Need Quick Medical Advice in Britain? Ask Alexa

Alexa Blogs: Introducing New Alexa Healthcare Skills

Amazon Announces 6 New HIPAA Compliant Alexa Skills

Amazon Alexa Is Now HIPAA-Compliant: Tech Giant Says Health Data Can Now Be Accessed Securely

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