Now that Amazon has put Alexa devices into millions of homes, the company is seeking ways to make the gadgets more useful. Starting this week, the voice assistants will be able to remind people when to take their medications.
Amazon has partnered with Giant Eagle, a pharmacy chain with more than 200 locations across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, West Virginia and Indiana. A Giant Eagle spokesperson told CNBC that any customer with an active prescription and an Alexa device can access the medication management skill on their Alexa app.
In the battle for the connected home, Amazon, Google and Apple are building devices to help consumers manage their busy lives. Health is a lucrative but complicated market because of the regulations and privacy rules around managing sensitive health information on behalf of hospitals and pharmacies. Making the technology compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act can take years, and Amazon is already facing a backlash following reports this year that Alexa is listening to its users to improve functionality.
Amazon announced in April that Alexa is HIPAA compliant, representing a big step for the company into the $3.5 trillion health-care sector. Unlike its rivals, Amazon has a dedicated team working on health and wellness use cases, including medication management, for its voice assistant. Amazon, which also owns online pharmacy PillPack, said in a blog post on Tuesday that it's still "day one" when it comes to all the various opportunities it can pursue in health.
"When we built the skill, we were thinking about all the different customer profiles, like the folks who skew older and are taking lots of medications, to the parents whose kids are juggling different medications," said Rachel Jiang, who runs Amazon Alexa's health and wellness team.
Giant Eagle said it's not working with any other companies in the home assistant market. But Amazon has other projects underway. The company is also partnering with Omnicell, which specializes in automated pharmacy dispensing, to help with medication management. Next year, Amazon plans to expand to additional pharmacies to serve thousands more users.
Jiang said Amazon started working on the skill after the company noticed that customers were using Alexa to create medication reminders on their own. Many wanted more detailed information, like notifications on how often they should take their meds, so Amazon started working to provide that kind of service in ways that wouldn't jeopardize their privacy.
Here's how it will work:
Alexa will walk Giant Eagle customers through the process of setting up a profile and personal passcode, which serves as an extra level of authentication so that Alexa won't deliver a medication list to the wrong person.
After linking their accounts, a customer can ask Alexa about their medications and get a description of each. They can say "Alexa, manage my medication," to get started on reminders. And once the reminder goes off, a user can ask: "Alexa, what medication am I supposed to be taking right now?" Alexa will again ask for the passcode before providing an answer.
Customers can also request prescription refills via Alexa, and Giant Eagle has an existing service to deliver medications to the home.
Jiang said users can delete these recordings at any time, and the medication reminders can always be turned off or snoozed if they're no longer needed. She said the company erred on the side of caution, which is why users are repeatedly asked for their passcode. But Jiang didn't rule out making it easier for customers over time.
"There's definitely a friction in terms of finding a way for consumers to have access to the experience and balancing that out with privacy and security of the data," she said. "In this initial launch, we add some additional friction to be firmly in a position to properly protect their privacy."