Will Amazons Alexa start monitoring your health soon?


Alexa, am I sick?

Mother knows best may be quickly be replaced by home voice assistants.

In the past, I have written at Pharmacy Times about the potential of Amazons Alexa to move into home monitoring of health issues. Now, at the time there had been some interesting pilots and related 'studies' investigating such a tool for health monitoring and coaching (such as physical fitness) but a recent announcement about Amazon filing a patent entitled "Voice-based determination of physical and emotional characteristics of users" really makes me believe this could be a potential market given several factors.

First, as I have written about previously, Amazon has done a lot of work expanding into the health market. They sell their own OTC line now and own a pharmacy (i.e., PillPack). So, it wouldn't be hard to start looking for ways for them to sell their products to patients that they could identify as ill. If we look at the patent, the abstract reads thus:

Systems, methods, and computer-readable media are disclosed for voice-based determination of physical and emotional characteristics of users. Example methods may include determining first voice data, wherein the first voice data is generated by a user, determining a first real-time user status of the user using the first voice data, generating a first data tag indicative of the first real-time user status, determining first audio content for presentation at a speaker device using the first data tag and the first voice data, and causing presentation of the first audio content via a speaker of the speaker device.

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In addition, the image in the patent presents a scenario whereby a user of Alexa walks into the door and the following dialogue occurs:

  • Alexa ‘Cough’ I’m Hungry ‘Sniffle’

  • Would you like a recipe for chicken soup?

  • No, Thanks.

  • Ok, I can find you something else. By the way, would you like to order cough drops delivered with 1 hour delivery?

  • That would be awesome! Thanks for asking!

  • No problem. I’ll email you an order confirmation. Feel better!

Now that's really cool. More to the point, a person I love following in health tech, Christina Farr, put out a good tweet about this.

And I agree with her, as I had identified this may have been an eventuality back in May 2018:

...Amazon does have its own OTC line that seems to be expanding. This could be a product line slid into the home voice assistant platform in several ways. Imagine, for instance, you're at home and your kid starts coughing, or you start sneezing. Maybe Alexa starts asking you if you are feeling alright. Maybe Alexa knows it's a change of seasons and allergies are high in your area based on geo-mapped data and some smart analytics. Then Alexa asks if you'd like to order some allergy medications from Amazon to be delivered the next day. Who knows, this could be the future of personalized medical deliveries since we've started to invite these machines into our homes.

I feel pretty confident this is highly feasible, which brings me to the second factor to consider: Telemedicine. We know that CVS and Walgreens are getting into this space, and that there are multiple companies on the start-up scene looking into online diagnosing and prescriptions (so-called digital health clinics) such as Maven, Roman, and Lemonaid for instance. I would not be surprised if Amazon buys one of these companies to leverage with such a platform. Because, it's one thing to recommend OTC products, but the game changer would be a prescription for a potential illness caught in the home before the patient was aware of themselves. So, cough and cold sensed by Amazons Alexa could lead to a scenario whereby Amazon may recommend the user (now patient) be connected with a teleservice, and receive a prescription that could be delivered. Now, the limiting factor here, of course, is no one wants to wait even for next-day delivery of certain medications (e.g., antibiotics), so a quicker delivery service would need to be a factor.

But I am also looking at other possibilities. Suppose Alexa knows you just started an ACEi, which has a common side effect of a cough. Well, perhaps Alexa also knows your health history and records and can say that this is a likely ADR, and wants to put you in contact with a doctor for a quick assessment.

These are the type of things that a smart home will bring to patient care. And I do believe people will want it and buy it. I look to Best Buy who is getting into this market by buying Great Call, and I can see them being a company that starts adding smart home devices into a patient home for health reasons. Because let's be honest: Most people want to live and die at home and not a nursing facility if they can help it. And if home health aids and such are too pricey, perhaps smart home devices can be an intermediary. This I think is the next big growth market. I can see investors and founders, once seeing their patients age and get health conditions, start turning their minds from how to treat chronic conditions (e.g., blood pressure, diabetes) and focus on: "How can I keep my parents home and comfortable?" which will spur a huge increase in startups in that niche within the next decade. All too often I think founders focus on issues they see now, and not what is coming down the pipeline, and I think the inevitable place of disruption will be how we age and die in our lives.

In any event, I welcome comments on what you think Amazon and other companies may take on in the near future!