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Thanks to Kevin K. Peek and Killian R. Walsh, for sharing the following article.
The Budding Friendship of HIPAA and Virtual Assistants
Earlier this year, Amazon proudly announced to the world that its virtual assistant, Alexa, possesses new skills in the realm of health care that abide by the ever-formidable Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, also known as HIPAA. The popular voice assistant is best known for residing in Amazon’s hefty army of Echo devices. However, winning over HIPAA is not a popularity contest. The well-known goal of HIPAA is to guard protected health information (PHI), a task the enforcers of HIPAA do not take lightly as evidenced by the many multi-million-dollar fines handed out to healthcare professionals found to be in violation each year.
Health care is a field into which many top technology companies, including Apple and Google, are attempting to establish a larger presence. While small steps have been taken, none have been able to enter the health market with their most ideal product – their respective voice assistants. Their attempts are often thwarted (understandably so) by HIPAA and the need to protect patients’ individual health information. However, that changed in April with Amazon’s announcement.
Amazon introduced six new Alexa health skills in April. These skills allow users to ask questions such as “Alexa, pull up my blood glucose readings” or “Alexa, find me a doctor.” Amazon partnered with six different companies – including St. Louis-based pharmacy benefits manager Express Scripts along with the health insurer Cigna – for the development of these specific skills in an early effort to test the waters of merging healthcare with the growing availability of smart technology. The new skills also allow users to schedule appointments with health care providers, find urgent care centers, receive updates from their health care providers, access their latest blood sugar reading, and check the status of their prescription deliveries.
Straight from Amazon, below is a detailed listing of the new skills:
Amazon stated that it plans to work with other companies on an invitation-only basis. Amazon, along with the companies it invites, will work together to develop new skills that are HIPAA-compliant by offering business associate agreements to meet HIPAA requirements. So what does this mean? How do these skills get around HIPAA and ensure patient information is protected?
Amazon is leading the charge in becoming a sort of “middle man” company that has access to healthcare information by transmitting it only. The way they are getting around the notion that only providers can access information is by entering into agreements with health care companies related to data. For example, with one of the skill partners, Livongo, their agreement provides for Livongo to store the information and Alexa only to transmit the information. Alexa is not able to store any information and therefore is not able to do anything further with the data, theoretically.
While there are numerous details left to hash out, the obvious merging of health care and virtual assistants will undeniably provide ample benefits to consumers. However, providing that same level of privacy protection for patients, while also allowing such a merger, is a significant complication.
The task of creating the ability for a virtual assistant to protect and utilize PHI is no small feat. While these new available skills are a great step, virtual assistants are still not approved to provide any other kind of assistance for medical personnel related to PHI. Tasks not yet ready include note taking by doctors about a patient visit, reminders about patient appointments, and sending prescriptions to pharmacies. However, with the never-ending advances in technology and the brilliant minds behind these early steps to work with HIPAA, patients’ protected health information will continue to remain in good hands, whether they be real or virtual.
Kevin K. Peek, JD, is an associate in the St. Louis office of Sandberg Phoenix & von Gontard P.C. and focuses on his practice on cases involving medical malpractice defense and the defense of providers in correctional health care. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Killian R. Walsh, JD, is an associate with Stanton Barton, LLC in St. Louis. Her experience and practice includes medical malpractice defense, defense of transportation and trucking companies, and complex products liability litigation. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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