Amazon Alexa's first HIPAA-sanctioned skills open new doors for pharma

Amazon's new Alexa upgrade offers some HIPAA-compliant skills—and some potential new opportunities for drugmakers that want to jump on the voice-activated AI platform.

Amazon announced six partners last week in its first HIPAA-compliant nod for the voice apps it calls "skills." The partners, which include Express Scripts and Livongo, are offering apps that allow consumers to check on prescriptions, find urgent care and schedule visits, and log and track some health data.

RELATED: Siri? Alexa? The doctor will see you now: As hands-free tech use grows, pharma has an opportunity

HIPAA compliance has been on healthcare marketers’ wish list since Alexa was launched. But for pharma marketers, the possibilities are still limited by its position as just one of the stops along a patient’s healthcare journey.

Anne Weiler, CEO of Wellpepper whose Sugarpod voice application won the Merck-sponsored Alexa Diabetes Challenge in 2017, said pharma could find ways to use Alexa, but the trick will be tapping the platform in ways that are really useful for patients. Wellpepper, a platform for digital patient treatment plans, is also an Amazon Web Services Advanced Partner.

“Today, you can already create a pharma skill that does medication tracking and doesn't send data anywhere. But what we found is that patients don’t want those skills. They want a skill that is connected, that is going somewhere and that someone can actually do something with the data,” she said.

While that likely means skills focusing on one drug brand may not gain a lot of traction, pharma can still use Alexa's HIPAA-compliant abilities, Weiler said. Drugmakers might tap the platform for clinical trial enrollment and engagement, for instance. Pharma could also aggregate anonymized Alexa data to discover trends and insights around different conditions.

RELATED: Digital therapeutics from apps to smart inhalers, brought to you by pharma

Pharma could also team up with partners on the platform, Weiler said. For example, drugmakers might provide the content for a drug search skill used in a doctor’s office. Instead of the physician handing the patient a sheet of information about a given drug, the doctor and patient could listen to drug information provided by the manufacturer together during an office visit.

“The challenge pharma is having now with digital health is just how direct are they allowed to go and on what topics?" she said. "Patients are looking for something comprehensive whereas pharma can really only talk about that one piece of it that surrounds the drug. So plugging into other skills is probably going to be one of the more interesting uses for them."

Weiler doesn't believe Alexa voice skills will replace other digital technologies in healthcare, but complement specific applications instead. Wellpepper's research with patients has found that people are comfortable talking to Alexa—the voice avatar seemed empathetic, they said—and they're not worried about giving Alexa a lot of information about their health. Alexa skills might also bring in more patients to the digital world; the platform could be easier to use for people who are less adept with mobile phone apps and more affordable, too, because an entry-level Echo Dot costs less than $50.