Amazon may be known as the “everything store,” but the company’s tendrils extend far beyond ecommerce. On Thursday, Amazon said Alexa-enabled devices can now handle customers’ sensitive medical data, and it teased the release of a new kit that would allow approved outside developers to build Alexa skills that access users’ private health information, paving the way for the voice assistant to play a bigger role in health care.
With the announcement came the release of new skills giving Alexa the ability to relay and store blood sugar measurements from internet-connected monitoring devices, help schedule doctors’ appointments, pass on post-op instructions from hospitals, and provide prescription delivery updates by securely accessing customers’ private medical information.
As part of the announcement, Amazon said it had committed to protect personal health information according to the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, which protects the privacy of medical records. Alexa’s health and wellness team had been working to obtain HIPAA compliance for months. For now, only six companies invited by Amazon will be able to build skills that can access sensitive medical information, but Amazon expects to add more developers to that list in the coming months.
In a statement to WIRED, Amazon said that while the company applies multiple layers of security to all skill data—including encryption, access controls, and secure storage in the Amazon cloud—the health care skills data will be treated differently to meet HIPAA requirements. The company did not specify what additional measures are in place to ensure that users’ personal health information is properly identified and access to it is controlled and properly audited.
The move is a sign of Amazon’s growing ambitions in health care and consumer-facing uses of its technology. The company has made dozens of high-profile health care hires in recent years.
Since 2014, Amazon has been running a secretive lab dedicated to moon-shot-style projects in health care, like using machine learning to help prevent and treat cancer. The lab goes by at least three different names, depending on who you ask—including 1492, The Amazon Grand Challenge, and Amazon X—and it has worked on projects related to telemedicine and the development of health applications for Alexa-enabled devices, per CNBC. The group also reportedly spent years working on a tool to mine patient medical records for data to flag potentially inaccurate information and fill in gaps in a patient’s medical history for insurance companies, among others.
Last year, Amazon partnered with JP Morgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway to launch a new health care venture—only recently given the name Haven—ostensibly designed to revamp health care while cutting costs.
In June, Amazon bought online pharmacy startup PillPack, which ships prescription medications directly to customers’ doorsteps, for $1 billion in cash. Amazon has also started selling medical supplies to hospitals and medical professionals.
In November, the company launched Amazon Comprehend Medical, a machine learning tool that mines doctors’ notes and patient health records for data about a patient’s diagnoses and medications. Change Healthcare, which works with pharmacies to process claims, used the service to predict which insurance claims were most likely to be denied, reports CNBC.
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