Players including pharma companies, hospitals and payors are increasingly developing new kinds of experiences that take advantage of technologies including apps, social networks, connected devices, AI and chatbots.

Now some are developing voice-based experiences for patients.

Earlier this month, Amazon announced that it has allowed select players in the healthcare market to build skills for its Alexa voice-based digital assistant that handle information protected under the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).

Skills from six organizations, including pharmacy provider Express Scripts, health services provider Cigna Health, and Boston Children’s Hospital, are now available for us on Alexa-enabled devices.

Amazon says “these new skills 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.”

For example, the Express Scripts skill allows Express Scripts members with a current prescription to track the status of their orders using commands such as, “Alexa, ask Express Scripts: has my order shipped?”

Skills from two healthcare systems, Swedish Health Connect and Atrium Health, allow patients to find locations and schedule same-day appointments. And the My Children’s Enhanced Recovery After Surgery (ERAS) skill from Boston Children’s Hospital allows caregivers of children in the ERAS program at the hospital to supply care teams with recovery progress information and receive updates about post-op appointments.

According to John Brownstein, the Chief Innovation Officer for Boston Children’s Hospital, the hospital “has long believed that voice technology has the potential to substantially improve the healthcare experience for both consumers and clinicians.” He says the ERAS skill “is just one example of how voice technology can extend the care and support of our patients beyond the four walls of the hospital.”

For players in the healthcare industry, the potential convenience offered by voice-based experiences is seen as having the potential to produce meaningful outcomes.

For example, Mark Bini, Express Scripts’ VP of Innovation and Member Experience, believes that the convenience of voice technology can help “further solve the costly and unhealthy problem of medication non-adherence.”

Cigna Health’s skill, Cigna Health Today, which is available to American Eagle Outfitters associates who are covered by a Cigna health plan, aims to help users manage their health improvement goals and earn incentive rewards. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), wellness programs, which employers and payors use in an attempt to reduce costs, are allowed to offer outcomes-based incentives to members.

Hurdles to consumer adoption

Offering a way for healthcare entities to build voice-based experiences that are HIPAA-compliant is a critical step for Amazon to extend Alexa’s reach into the healthcare realm, but it doesn’t guarantee that consumers will embrace these experiences.

While voice- enabled devices are in more homes than ever, the data suggests that oft-hyped applications, such as voice search and conversational commerce, aren’t taking off in as big a way as some analysts predicted.

Is voice commerce a flop?

There are a number of potential reasons for this, including accuracy shortcomings and the possibility that consumers don’t perceive voice-based experiences to be significantly more efficient than traditional web and mobile-based experience.

As it relates to healthcare, there is also the possibility that consumers will question whether they can trust voice assistants like Alexa. To wit, the revelation that Amazon has thousands of workers around the world listening to Alexa interactions in an effort to improve Alexa’s capabilities.

While this might not be as surprising or disturbing as some media reports are making it out to be, concerns about the security and privacy of recordings from Alexa-enabled devices could be enough to deter some consumers from using Alexa skills that involve the transmission or receipt of sensitive healthcare information.

To be sure, healthcare organizations should continue to experiment with new ways to interact with those they serve. Because of the nature of the healthcare market, in many cases if they don’t build it, they won’t come.

But until there’s evidence larger numbers of consumers are embracing voice-based experiences, particularly those that are transactional in nature, healthcare organizations would probably be wise to ensure they’re not over-investing in this area.

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