Amazon Echo devices are fun and useful applications for consumers in the home. But in the hospital, such voice recognition technology has the potential to save lives.
Developers at top hospitals and medical clinics across the country are tinkering with Amazon Alexa and other voice technologies for a variety of applications. Some are working with Alexa to deliver routine medical information to patients at home; others are using it to help surgeons complete lists of tasks.
"There are some massive voice applications that will be built for health enterprises," John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital, told CNBC.
Physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital are researching how text-to-speech technology can be useful in helping surgeons comply with surgical safety checklists in the operating room.
Raul Uppot, a radiologist at the hospital, told CNBC that in one case a patient was listening in to the safety checklist via a voice application right before going under. The patient had an allergy to latex, a fact that was missing from the medical record, but was addressed thanks to the checklist.
That might have averted disaster, as the surgeons had intended to use latex gloves.
Uppot is now sold on the potential of voice technology, not just to help doctors but also to involve patients in their own care in new ways.
Likewise, Boston Children's hospital released an Alexa app called KidsMD for users to get health information for common illnesses and medication dosing. Internally, the hospital has also piloted an Alexa app to help its physicians comply with protocols before procedures and surgeries.
Health experts say the most obvious application for Alexa has not been exploited, at least not yet. Doctors are spending up to two-thirds of their day on busywork, namely clicking fields in their electronic health record system.
Alexa could help with that by transcribing notes and documenting patient interactions on the doctor's behalf. That would free up the provider to spend quality time with the patient, rather than staring at a computer screen.
But hospitals are held back because Alexa is yet not HIPAA-compliant, meaning Amazon has not taken steps to ensure it can safely store patient health information. If hospitals can't pass such data through Alexa, that limits its usefulness.
Amazon is continually expanding its HIPAA compliance program, so Alexa could be next.
The hunt for the killer app
Cedars Sinai in Southern California is also in the early days of experimenting with Alexa.
"We are fascinated with it," said Darren Dworkin, the hospital's chief information officer. "We need a killer app before it gets mainstream, but I don't know what that will be yet."
Dworkin said he is hoping to see some Alexa applications in the company's next class of health-tech start-ups for its medical accelerator program.
In Silicon Valley, investors are also on the hunt for promising health apps for Alexa, which might be used in the hospital and at home.
"Alexa doesn't care if you can see well" or if you're dexterous, said Lisa Suennan, managing director of healthcare at GE Ventures. Suennan is also optimistic that such technologies could recognize potential indicators of depression and other mental health disorders by monitoring a user's voice.
Ambar Bhattacharyya from Maverick Capital said he's also looking for Alexa health apps, such as those that can provide support to an aging population. That'll be key, he says, to monitor patients at home once they've left the hospital.
Amazon is doing its part to promote health applications for Alexa. The company recently co-hosted a challenge with Merck to encourage developers to build apps that can help diabetes patients better manage their disease.