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Yvonne Meyer is no Luddite. The 81-year-old not only uses a computer; she gave up her landline for a cellphone long ago. Still, she was skeptical when her home health aides gave her an Amazon Echo Dot to try.
"I didn't understand why I needed this" but soon became a fan, said the former teacher, who lives at a senior living facility in Los Angeles. She said the voice assistant has made getting in touch with her home health aides much easier.
"If I've fallen, I have this button I can push," she said, pointing to the medical alert pendant she wears around her neck. "But it often times takes a while for them to answer and find out what my problem is, but with Alexa it takes no time at all and they come right away."
Nurses and home care aides at Libertana Home Health Care have been using Alexa with some elderly clients for several weeks in an experiment. Already, it has helped them be more responsive to their clients' needs, streamlining things like making sure they get their medication. The companion online app has also made it easier to keep family caregivers in the loop.
"We can give access to family members... the same access we have, to be able to check and see how the clients are doing... so they can see how their mom is doing," explained Debra Harrison, a nurse with Libertana, "to free up time to socialize with their (family member) and not worry about their medical care."
"Voice is becoming that next wave of how can we engage because it really means that we're lowering the friction for people to be able to interact with something," said Bill Rogers, co-founder and CEO of the company.
Orbita is developing and testing health-care programs for clients including hospitals that want to make sure patients take their medications and follow post-surgery instructions, and drugmakers, who want to make it easier for trial participants to share their data.
"We ultimately have to make the information that you collect actionable," said Rogers. "And so our system can notify electronic health record systems."
Orbita is focused on industry applications rather than consumer health apps. But the tech giants like Apple, Alphabet's Google and Amazon could well blaze the path in consumer health with their digital voice assistants and the ability for their programs to anticipate user's needs through machine learning, according to Scripps Health's Dr. Eric Topol.
"The ability to interact with an individual, a consumer, with their data and the world's medical literature — no one has done that yet," said Topol, author of "The Creative Destruction of Medicine." "Ultimately I think there will be a race between the likes of Amazon, Apple, (and Google's) Verily to get there first — as well as, perhaps, a couple of hundred start-ups."
Amazon has already paired with Merck and Luminary Labs on the Alexa Diabetes Challenge, which will award a $125,000 prize next month to the start-up to develop a voice app to help patients manage type 2 diabetes. Five finalists in the challenge gathered at Amazon Web Service's Seattle offices last month to develop their ideas. A spokeswoman for Amazon declined to discuss the contest or its work in health care.
While voice apps provide ease of use, for the apps to be connected to medical records, firms have to address concerns about security with devices that are always listening.
"What we're seeing is going to be a whole new look at privacy," Topol said. "HIPAA regulations ... [are] 20 years old — and they don't even take into account the technology and the data processing capability that we have today. There have to be a lot of adjustments before this becomes part of routine practice."
The programs Orbita is developing are still in the testing phase, and the voice technology itself is still evolving. The Alexa platform is just a couple of years old, Google's home device was introduced last year, while Apple and Samsung are getting set to launch their own versions.
"The state of the art right now with devices like this is that there's this concept of a 'wake word' … with this device, you have to say 'Alexa'," said Orbita co-founder Nathan Treloar. "What we're experiencing with the newer devices that are coming on the market … is that it's possible to eliminate the wake word. And so you can just kind of interact with it directly."
While it's still early days for these devices, a number of the major insurers say they are studying how they can use voice technology for their Medicare population to help keep seniors living at home, and feeling connected — the way Meyer feels about having Alexa always at the ready.
"I think of her as a person, but she's really just a machine," Meyer said.
That's saying a lot.
(Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that the Alexa Diabetes Challenge would award a $250,000 prize next month, however half of the prize money has already been awarded collectively to the five finalists for reaching the final stage. The challenge is supported by Amazon Web Services. Also, the brand of medical alert pendant was misidentified.)