How Alexa’s best skill could be as a home health care assistant

Yvonne Meyer is no luddite — the 81-year-old uses a computer and gave up her landline in favor of a cell phone long ago. Still, she was skeptical when her home health aides gave her an Amazon Echo dot to try.

“I didn’t understand why I needed this,” but soon became a fan, said the former teacher who now lives at a senior living facility in Los Angeles, because the voice assistant has made getting in touch with her home health aides much easier.

“If I’ve fallen, I have this button I can push,” she said pointing to the Life Alert pendant she wears around her neck. “But it often times takes a while for them to answer and find out what my problem is, but with Alexa it takes no time at all and they come right away.”

Nurses and home care aides at Libertana Home Health Care have been using Alexa with a handful of their elderly clients for several weeks as part of a trial. Already it has helped them be more responsive to their clients’ needs, streamlining things like making sure they get their medication. The companion online app has also made it easier to keep family caregivers in the loop.

“We can give access to family members… the same access we have, to be able to check and see how the clients are doing… so they can see how their mom is doing,” explained Debra Harrison, a nurse with Libertana, “to free up time to socialize with their (family member) and not worry about their medical care.”

Libertana’s Alexa skill — as voice applications are called on the Amazon Echo platform — was designed by Orbita, a two-and-a-half-year old voice platform start-up in Boston.

“Voice is becoming that next wave of how can we engage because it really means that we’re lowering the friction for people to be able to interact with something,” said Bill Rogers, co-founder and CEO of the start-up health tech firm.

Orbita is developing and testing health-care programs for clients ranging from hospitals that want to make sure patients take their medications and follow post-surgery instructions, to drugmakers, who want to make it easier for trial participants to share their data.

“We ultimately have to make the information that you collect actionable,” said Rogers. “And so our system can notify electronic health record systems.”

Orbita is focused on industry applications, rather than consumer health apps. But the tech giants like Apple, Alphabet’s Google and Amazon could well blaze the path in consumer health with their digital voice assistants and the ability for their programs to anticipate user’s needs through machine learning, according to Scripps Health’s Dr. Eric Topol.

“The ability to interact with an individual, a consumer, with their data and the world’s medical literature — no one has done that yet,” said Dr. Topol, the author of The Destruction of Medicine. “Ultimately I think there will be a race between the likes of Amazon, Apple, (and Google’s) Verily to get there first — as well as, perhaps, a couple of hundred startups.”

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