Amazon Alexa is missing one big thing before it gets into health care

Key Points
  • Amazon Alexa is already being used in health care for a variety of applications.
  • But it isn't HIPAA compliant -- at least not yet.
Diagram showing Amazon "Alexa" technology on an Echo device
Source: Amazon

Amazon's voice technology Alexa has a lot of opportunity to be used in health care, whether it's for remote monitoring of sick patients or in helping doctors take notes during patient visits.

But there's one big problem.

Alexa is not yet HIPAA-compliant, meaning it doesn't meet the federal rules that protect patient privacy when it comes to their personal health data.

Not all health app developers will be subject to HIPAA, but the law requires that "covered entities," such as doctors and health plans, as well as their business associates, are compliant.

That means that health developers can build Amazon Alexa skills around things like recommending nutritious food, but not to record patients' lab results or other types of health information in a clinical setting.

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Amazon acknowledged this problem on Monday at an event called the "diabetes challenge," where it worked with a series of partners to promote use-cases for Alexa for patients with diabetes. The finalists include a personal assistant or coach for patients with diabetes, and a virtual nutrition assistant.

For the challenge, Amazon is partnered up with the drug maker Merck and strategy firm Luminary Labs.

At the event, Amazon Web Services' health lead Oxana Pickeral publicly acknowledged the gap -- and implied that Amazon would be taking steps to fix it.

"While Alexa and Lex (the technology powering Alexa) are not HIPAA-eligible, this (challenge) has provided us an opportunity to envision what is possible," she said.

It's worth noting that it took some time for Amazon Web Services, its cloud service, to become compliant so it could work with covered entities that manage personal health information. But now, it is the dominant cloud provider for health care.

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