Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa, will start looking for medical help

AP
Washington Hispanic:

If there isn’t a doctor in the house, Amazon’s Alexa will soon be able to summon one.

Amazon and telemedicine provider Teladoc Health are starting a voice-activated virtual care program that allows customers to get medical help without picking up their phones.

The service, for non-emergency health concerns, will be available around the clock on Amazon Echo devices. Customers can tell the Alexa voice assistant that they want to speak to a doctor, and that will trigger a call back to a doctor from Teladoc.

The program, announced Monday, marks Amazon’s latest expansion into health care and another push by the retail giant into a form of care that grew rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Telehealth is now something that patients have become accustomed to and can come to expect as an option for their care,” said Lori Uscher-Pines, senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp. “(Before) the pandemic, it could not having been as aware that this was a service that was available.

Amazon already dispenses prescription drugs and is expanding an Amazon Care program it launched in 2019 that offers telemedicine visits with the option to send a patient care provider if you need an in-person visit.

The company’s latest healthcare expansion comes as several competitors, including Walmart and drugstore chains CVS and Walgreens, also beef up their medical offerings. They are adding care clinics or virtual programs to make it easier for patients to find regular help in America’s fragmented health care system.

Insurers and employers who pay medical bills are pushing for this as a way to improve health and reduce hospital stays or other large medical expenses.

“Healthcare is a huge industry of huge value, and it’s ripe for disruption,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. “And Amazon sees itself as a disruptor.”

Some hospitals already use Alexa as a voice assistant in patient rooms. In Great Britain, Alexa works with the NHS to help answer medical questions with advice from the country’s official website.

The service announced Monday will be available to customers who create an Alexa voice ID. After telling the voice assistant that they need to speak to a doctor, people will connect to a Teladoc call center and then receive a call from a doctor.

The calls are audio-only for now, but the companies say they hope to add video soon. In some cases, doctors may prescribe medications.

Customers can get a call the same day, but that may depend on the availability of doctors in the state where the patient is located, Teladoc spokesman Chris Savarese said. He noted that the ongoing pandemic may lead to longer wait times.

The cost of a visit may vary depending on the patient’s coverage. Without insurance, calls will cost $75.

Savarese said that Amazon will not be able to access, record or store the content of the ensuing call.

Amazon is moving deeper into health care as other growth engines slow. In its most recent quarter, the Seattle-based company reported that its online retail business fell 1%.

Kate McCarthy, senior research director at research firm Gartner, sees room for Amazon to expand beyond simple doctor calls. She noted that the company’s healthcare segment in its cloud computing division aims to create new healthcare services and products.

McCarthy said he could see Amazon eventually helping monitor patients going home after a hospital stay, using Alexa and sensors to check how often they flush the toilet or open the fridge.

With its prescription services, Amazon hasn’t lost a significant share of drugstore rivals, but McCarthy said it could become a legitimate player.

“There is no one type of magical entry into the market,” he added, “it will be a combination of things.”

Telemedicine in general grew rapidly when the pandemic first hit the United States and patients wanted to snuggle up at home instead of visiting the doctor’s office.

Since then, virtual visits have leveled off somewhat as office visits have largely resumed. But Uscher-Pines said research shows patients remain interested.

Many want telemedicine to be available when they need it for convenience, not as a replacement for in-person care.

“Most people don’t want that to cannibalize their in-person care,” he said. “They still want those options.”