What Will HIPAA-Compliant Voice Assistants Mean for Providers?

As the technology matures, digital assistants offer plenty of promise for healthcare organizations.

HIPAA compliance is a challenge for every healthcare organization. The industry took note in April when Amazon announced new HIPAA-compliant features for its Alexa digital assistant. These features represent a step forward in the potential for smart speaker technology to meet growing demands from patients for easy access to information when it comes to their health.

“It’s certainly an evolving wave in healthcare, and there are a lot of entities developing a variety of uses for voice assistants,” says Leeann Habte, a partner at Best Best & Krieger, a law firm that specializes in digital information management. “Some of the current apps are scheduling appointments and doing other things that are lower risk, but if we think about potential uses, will the technology be adequate in terms of voice recognition to fully ensure the integrity of information provided?” 

As capabilities expand, some observers expect more questions about the integrity of patient information. Voice-enabled digital assistants offer plenty of promise for both patients and care providers, but these solutions must first address concerns about how they handle data. Users must be satisfied that these devices are trustworthy in how they collect, store and use data, especially regarding electronic health records.

MORE FROM HEALTHTECH: Find out how voice activation and virtual assistants are modernizing health and senior care.

Digital Assistants Make for a Natural Fit with Consumers

In April, Providence St. Joseph Health (PSJH), based in Renton, Wash., began allowing patients to make same-day medical appointments and manage healthcare visits using Alexa-enabled devices. Maryam Gholami, vice president of product and design at PSJH’s digital innovation group, says the company partnered with Amazon because it’s the first tech company to offer HIPAA-compliant features

“Voice is still early, even for things outside of healthcare. Consumers are still experimenting with it,” Gholami says. “What we want to do is learn from that behavior and work on our user experience and use cases that we have, and just perfect that over time.”

Jay Maxwell, Senior Director of Health Information, Mayo Clinic Global Business Solutions
Speaking comes naturally to us as humans. We speak faster than we type. Voice technology may offer much utility and efficiency in a healthcare setting.”

Jay Maxwell Senior Director of Health Information, Mayo Clinic Global Business Solutions

Other providers are further along in developing applications that make use of digital assistants. The Mayo Clinic rolled out an app that works with Alexa in 2017 and this year added one that works with Google. The apps are designed to provide “quick, zero-touch answers for handling everyday mishaps such as cuts, bee stings and burns,” says Jay Maxwell, senior director of health information at Mayo Clinic Global Business Solutions. They also offer self-care instructions for dozens of common medical situations and guidance on when to seek emergency help. 

“Speaking comes naturally to us as humans. We speak faster than we type,” he says. “Voice technology may offer much utility and efficiency in a healthcare setting.”

In-House Apps Allow Nurses to Focus on Patient Care

Because first-aid information isn’t protected by HIPAA, the Mayo Clinic didn’t need to wait for Amazon’s announcement to roll out the app. However, at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, developers built their own system (using Snowboy, an open-source hotword detection toolkit) for the hospital’s Smart Patient Room Concierge. The app is completely HIPAA-compliant, says Viraj Patwardhan, vice president of digital design and consumer experience at Thomas Jefferson. 

118.5 million

The number of smart speakers in use in U.S. households

Source: Edison Research, “The Smart Audio Report,” January 2019

“It’s not like the data goes out into a larger pool. It’s well contained within Jefferson,” he says. “It builds a lot of trust with the patient.”

The concierge answers questions about things such as visiting hours, phone numbers for hospital departments or the weather, and it can provide health information on topics such as a diet for cardiac patients. 

It can also turn a television on and off, as well as change the channel. These are things that nurses generally do. Patwardhan expects voice technology to save those nurses time and help them focus on more meaningful tasks related to patient care.

HIPAA is a major hurdle for healthcare organizations. Learn four steps to help you toward compliance at healthtechmagazine.net/HIPAAChecklist.

Jun 25 2019