Amazon Alexa Now Helps Employees Manage Health Care

The voice-activated technology helps make appointments, check prescriptions and do other tasks

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS May 6, 2019
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updated on May 8, 2019

Amazon's Alexa, the voice-activated virtual assistant, now meets federal requirements under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to handle personal health information, Amazon recently announced. As a result, Alexa and similar cloud-based devices that comply with HIPAA can enable employees to navigate their health insurance coverage and receive personalized health care services.

Health care providers, pharmacy benefit managers and digital health coaching companies operating in Alexa's HIPAA-eligible environment will be able to communicate with health care users to "help customers manage a variety of health care 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," Amazon Alexa's head of Alexa Health and Wellness, Rachel Jiang, announced.

Cigna is among the insurers using Alexa to communicate with its plan enrollees. "Customers can simply use voice to understand the full range of their health benefits and receive personalized wellness incentives for meeting their health goals, empowering them to take control of their total health," said Cigna's senior vice president of global brand and customer communications, Stephen Cassell, in Amazon's announcement.

PBM Express Scripts is also on board. "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 nonadherence," said Mark Bini, Express Scripts' vice president of innovation and member experience.

The American Dental Association (ADA) is interested in Alexa's potential to promote dental health. "Voice technology could be a big part of what health care looks like in the future," said Nima Aflatooni, a member of the ADA's Council on Dental Practice, in ADA News. "We are interested in seeing if Alexa can really help patients connect to dentists and get more efficient access to care while securely protecting patient information in a HIPAA-compliant manner."

[SHRM members-only policies: HIPAA Medical Privacy Policy: Basic Requirements]

An Employee Health Care Role

Answering employees' health care questions through a device like Alexa has the potential to lower health care costs by improving employee education and compliance, said David Reid, CEO and co-founder of Ease, which provides software for HR and benefits administration.

"One of the largest challenges for employee benefits has been quick, convenient access to relevant information," such as which physicians are in an employee's health care network, Reid said. While there has been an increase in tools that make health care information easier to access, such as phone-based apps for comparing health care providers, with a device such as Alexa "employees don't have to log in or access the Internet for information," making it much more likely that they will actually use it.

'Employees don't have to log in or access the Internet for information.' 

Effect on Health Care Benefits

Employers are turning to health care technology to recruit and retain top talent, Reid said. "Millennials, the largest group in today's workforce, are demanding qualities in their benefit packages that aren't possible without technology, such as accessibility, mobility and flexibility," he explained.

"The ability to book a medical appointment or query recent blood sugar results via Alexa can provide data that will help better design health care offerings for employees," Reid said. "The more an insurance carrier knows about employee health service preferences, the better they can work with brokers to offer employees benefits they use and want."

Slack Seeks HIPAA Certification

Alexa isn't the only cloud-based communication tool that sees value in becoming HIPAA-compliant. Slack, a San Francisco-based business messaging application, is looking to have its messaging app used by health care providers and has asked to be designated a HIPAA "business associate," allowed to receive, maintain and transmit protected health information, the trade publication HealthLeaders reported.

While consumer advocates have raised concerns about health care companies accessing protected health information shared in messages and transmitted through cloud-based services, Slack "reiterates throughout its filing that it understands the importance of remaining HIPAA-compliant and the consequences of failure to meet federal regulations," according to HealthLeaders. Failure to meet HIPAA obligations could result in significant civil monetary penalties, criminal penalties with fines and even imprisonment.

Amazon, Slack and other companies whose devices seek to handle personal health information may be subject to state health information and patient privacy laws in addition to HIPAA, HealthLeaders noted.

Wellness Apps Not HIPAA Compliant

Most health care, fitness tracker and wellness apps are not covered by HIPAA, and they "can and do readily share health care and other data collected by the apps with third parties, including marketing and analytics companies," recently wrote Sara Jodka, an attorney in the Columbus, Ohio office of Dickinson Wright.

App users "bear the bulk of responsibility when they choose to input their personal health or other information into apps," she noted. "Health information does not have a universal protection and HIPAA is extremely limited as to its protections to such apps."

Moreover, "Even if the app is subject to HIPAA, there are a number of ways information can be disclosed via individual consent–and sometimes via consent the individual is not even sure they are granting," Jodka warned.

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