In order for Alexa to answer sensitive healthcare questions, it needs to be compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). And, as of Thursday, Amazon says its voice assistant is offering services that are. In a blog post today, the company announced that a number of new health skills can now be enabled on its hands-free speakers, making commands like “Alexa, ask Livongo for my last blood sugar reading” possible.
Amazon says Alexa’s “HIPAA-eligible environment” is currently invite-only to potential healthcare developers, but there are already six skills available to those who trust the company to handle information about their prescriptions, blood sugar levels, and post-operation recovery status.
Boston’s Children’s Hospital has one, called My Children’s Enhanced Recovery After Surgery, which, as the name suggests, allows you to both provide recovery updates and get information on follow-up appointments, according to Amazon’s blog post. Express Scripts, the largest pharmacy benefit management organization in the U.S., has a skill that lets you ask about details on prescription orders. Digital health startup Livongo’s skill lets you ask about blood sugar readings. Other skills let you ask Alexa about wellness goals and urgent care centers, and also schedule appointments.
While Amazon appears confident that its new Alexa environment can comply with HIPAA, the company has spectacularly fucked up in the past when it comes to protecting users’ privacy. Last year, Amazon’s home assistant reportedly recorded someone’s conversation and then sent the recording to an acquaintance, and just months later, the company reportedly sent someone 1,700 audio recordings of a stranger by accident.
Asked for comment, an Amazon spokesperson emphasized that many of the skills require “account linking and/or a voice code” to be used. “Additionally, interactions with the skills will be redacted in the Alexa app,” the spokesperson added.
As Amazon continues its expansion into the healthcare field, it seems inevitable the retail giant will end up handling reams of medical data. Let’s just hope that Alexa is as good at scheduling doctor’s appointments as it is at accidental spying.