Amazon pushes ahead with its healthcare master-plan: Now Alexa can remind you to take your medicine

The voice assistant's new skill, which lets it manage users' medication, falls in line with Amazon's recent investments in healthcare.

Leading digital transformation in healthcare Lisa Emery, CIO at Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, talks about the challenges of being responsible for digital transformation in the healthcare sector.

Amazon has taken yet another step forward in its healthcare plans; the company announced this week that Alexa will now be able to link to some selected pharmacies to set medication reminders based on customers' prescriptions, as well as order refills when needed. 

For the time being, the new feature will only be available to customers of Giant Eagle Pharmacy, a retailer with about 200 locations in the US. 

Rachel Jiang, who leads Amazon's health and wellness team, said that users can expect the scheme to expand to additional pharmacies next year.

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Amazon also teamed up with Omnicell, which supplies medication and supply-management services to pharmacies, to create the voice refill request tool. 

Customers can add a Giant Eagle Pharmacy skill to their Amazon account, using their Alexa voice profile. Using the skill will effectively require voice authentication, as well as passcode verification, "for an added layer of security and peace of mind," said Jiang.

Once the skill is set up, users can review their prescriptions and manage reminders, before getting started with "Alexa, what medication should I take now?" or "Alexa, refill my prescription".

Last year, Amazon acquired prescription delivery start-up PillPack for just under $1 billion; and last month, it added Health Navigator to its portfolio, which provides online symptom-checking and will be offered to Amazon employees

It all seems to add up to an Amazon healthcare masterplan, which doesn't come without privacy concerns – and especially in the latest scenario, which effectively sees Alexa listening in to information as confidential as our medical details. 

Pointing to the multiple layers of verification built in to the new feature, Jiang said that Amazon's health and wellness team have kept privacy and security a priority when developing the tool.

"Today's launch builds on the work we did earlier this year to provide HIPAA-eligible environments for skill developers," she said.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) is a US regulation ensuring that health data can only be shared between a patient and health care workers within the health care system. 

HIPAA compliance means that Amazon's Alexa should be able to transfer data from pharmacy to patient, but without handling it or using it for other purposes. 

Earlier this year, Amazon announced six partnerships with healthcare providers to build new Alexa skills in what the company called "our HIPAA-eligible environment". Alexa, said the company, will indeed be able to "transmit and receive protected health information".

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The projects include requesting updates from the voice assistant on prescription deliveries, providing information on patient recovery progress to hospital staff or finding urgent care centres to schedule same-day appointments.

More recently, Amazon looked to the UK for more healthcare opportunities. Over the summer, the company partnered with the NHS to allow patients to ask Alexa for health information