Amazon's Alexa Is Now a Healthcare Provider

Susan Kreimer

February 17, 2022

Welcome to the world of high-tech healthcare, where hospitality reigns supreme and the days of pressing buttons and waiting for a response are becoming a thing of the past.

Thanks to the emergence of digital personal assistants like Amazon's popular Alexa device, patients can now simply use their voices to get what they need. In turn, the device routes the request to an employee tasked with responding with, for example, a glass of water, an escort to the restroom, or turning the TV on or off.

The device is positioned near the bed and the bathroom, making calling for help easy even when a button serving that purpose is out of arm's reach.

"It's strategically located, convenient for the patient," said Golda Morales, RN, MSN, associate nursing director at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

And there's more that this technology can do for patients. "They can even ask Alexa to call home or anybody," Morales said. As long as they know the number, "Alexa will dial it for them."

The Upsides of Hands-Free Assistants

At hospitals around the US, Amazon's Alexa Smart Properties healthcare support is one of the newest technologies to be deployed. The voice-powered innovation is designed to better link patients with team members and to facilitate care in a hands-free way.

Patients who are confined to bed or are recovering from surgery can employ their voice to communicate digitally. This is especially helpful for patients who can't hold or press the call button but who, via Alexa, can still be immediately connected to a nurse's iPhone.

Alexa also enables patients to maneuver creature comforts themselves, such as lights, blinds, or bed settings, all without lifting a finger. "It has really helped us a lot in terms of patient satisfaction," Morales said. In advocating for patient safety, Alexa can play educational videos on topics such as preventing falls or taking medications correctly.

At Houston Methodist, a pilot program is underway to test Alexa in patient rooms. It is being used across the system of eight hospitals.

"The intent was to leverage Alexa in the most natural way that the patient is already used to in their home or office," said S. Nicholas Desai, DPM, chief medical officer and chief quality officer at Houston Methodist Sugar Land.

Patients at Houston Methodist can ask Alexa to call an outgoing number or the hospital's spiritual care. They also can inquire, "What's the weather?," or request Alexa to turn on the news or play jazz radio.

Wall signs, family education sheets, and bedside table tents in the rooms invite patients and family members to use Alexa at Boston Children's Hospital, a teaching institution affiliated with Harvard Medical School.

"They need to speak a little beyond a conversational level for Alexa to hear them," said Timothy Driscoll, director of digital health technology strategy. "If there is specialized clinical equipment in the room that is loud, it may be helpful to speak directly towards the device. By design, the devices are placed on the wall where the TV is located, where the patient gaze is typically oriented."

Driscoll said that although they don't monitor patients' music choices, their experience does stop short of carte blanche.

"Of course, the devices are limited to playing appropriate music with content restrictions for rated-R materials, so no foul language."

To assuage potential privacy concerns, a sign at Boston Children's reassures people that interactions with Alexa are deleted within 24 hours and also upon each patient's discharge. If someone prefers to not have Alexa in the room, the device will be removed for the duration of the hospital stay.

A Boutique Service Becomes a Necessary One

There are thousands of Alexa-enabled devices in hundreds of hospitals across the country, said Liron Torres, head of Alexa Smart Properties, Amazon.

"In the early days of the pandemic, hospitals started reaching out and asking for solutions to enable voice experiences in their facilities," Torres said. "They saw potential in how voice could enable stronger connection between caregivers and patients when protective gear was limited."

To meet those needs, the company created solutions tailored for hospitals, such as "drop-in functionality" for care team members.

"Traditionally, a patient might call a nurse into a room to let them know they need a blanket," she said. "This requires the nurse to travel to the patient's room, hear the request, leave the room, and come back to deliver the blanket. Now, a patient can easily make this request through voice, and the nurse can provide an immediate response to more efficiently help with that request."

The company also has received positive feedback from nurses managing care for patients in often-crowded intensive care units (ICUs). "One nurse reported using Echo devices to check on 10 ICU patients at least five times each per shift. The ability to communicate with patients through Alexa is saving that nurse 50 trips per day."

Another advantage of Alexa during the pandemic lies in connecting healthcare providers with patients. The providers have been able to virtually appear in patients' rooms on the Alexa Show video screens and quickly assess their needs and well-being.

"This also allows for providers who aren't on the floor or are even in another part of the hospital to engage with patients," Driscoll said. If a provider wanted to check in with a patient, Alexa can facilitate that encounter without the need to travel or change personal protective equipment (PPE) in between interactions with different people. "It's an efficiency, infection control and PPE use reduction benefit," he said.

In the near future, Driscoll added, more features will allow patients and families to ask, "Alexa, who is my care team?" or "Alexa, what is my nurse's name?" or "Alexa, what are my appointments today?"

Feeling at Home

Alexa is a reassuring presence in the 14 acute care hospitals of BayCare Health System in Clearwater, Florida, said Craig Anderson, director of innovation. Intrigued by the technology's growing popularity in consumer and retail markets, he said the health system wanted to enhance the patient and care team experience.

Patients are introduced to Alexa at the start of their stay in BayCare's new Smart Hospital Rooms. A care team member introduces the patient to the room and plays a video with a welcome message from the hospital's president and some information specifically about Alexa.

"It's ready to go for them," Anderson said. Whether the patient requests a pillow, ice chips, or help to the bathroom, "the Alexa software understands exactly what the patient asked for and alerts the appropriate care team member. That's the real brilliance of this."

In Florida, where air conditioning is often in year-round use, Alexa's capability to execute climate control commands is an added bonus. All new hospital rooms at BayCare will use Alexa to adjust the temperature based on a patient's preference. "The intuitive nature of the technology is what makes it simple to use," Anderson said. "Altogether, it's a very big patient satisfier."

Susan Kreimer is a New York-based freelance health journalist.

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