Pharma's next play: Pill-plus-Skill?

April 9, 2019 Matthew Arnold

With last week’s headlines that Amazon has HIPAA-proofed Alexa, voice applications for health are back in the news. The first crop of HIPAA-compliant Alexa Skills, from a select group of six developer partners, includes apps for checking blood glucose readings (from Livongo), navigating an employee wellness program (Cigna), scheduling appointments with HCPs (Boston Children’s Hospital, Providence St. Joseph Health and Atrium Health), and tracking mail-order prescriptions (Express Scripts).

As the main U.S. law governing privacy of personal medical information, HIPAA (AKA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) has been a barrier to the development of voice apps that can aid in patient care. The potential use cases, for everything from hands-free medical information to medical adherence tools, are many and promising. For pharma, it’s an obvious opportunity to add value through medication reminders and other types of patient support resources, and to inform patients about their products at key points in the medical decision-making process. However, given the regulatory hurdle posed by HIPAA, we’d expected pharma’s initial forays into voice tech to focus on applications for HCPs.

There have been a few forays by pharmas into patient-directed Alexa Skills so far – notably Pfizer’s It’s Your Wellness. Own It Skill and J&J’s Zyrtec-branded Your Daily AllergyCast – but these pioneers have understandably played it safe, steering a wide berth around sensitive medical topics or patient information. Amazon’s progress could change that equation.

Who will be the first pharma to launch a HIPAA-sensitive Alexa skill for patients? For now, Amazon’s HIPAA-compliant app dev program is invite-only, but that club is sure to expand quickly. Already, nearly 1 in 4 U.S. patients (23%) say they are likely to use a voice app from a pharma, per DRG Digital’s 2018 patient research, while 1 in 5 voice assistant users say they would use Alexa, Siri, Cortana, et al to stay on top of their medication.

In fact, DRG Digital study findings suggest that patients are already seeking treatment information through voice queries – one quarter of voice assistant users in the U.S. say they’ve tried to access side effect info via voice search, while 20% have sought information on treatments available for their condition through voice search. Another 13% have asked a voice assistant for information on how to take a treatment.

In our 2018 U.S. patient research, Alexa was the second most-used voice assistant (behind Siri), with 18% of U.S. adults surveyed saying they’d used Alexa, and another 22% expressing interest in doing so. Perhaps surprisingly, for all the headlines about data breaches, only 18% of patients who have used voice assistants say they wouldn’t use them for health information because of concerns about the security of their personal health data. This openness on the part of patients indicates the enormous potential of well-designed voice apps to boost adherence, better inform patients and improve patient health. 

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