Amazon building healthcare team in Alexa division

Amazon building healthcare team in Alexa division

Amazon is reported to be building a health and wellness team inside its Alexa smart assistant division, as part of its ongoing strategy to disrupt the healthcare sector.

An internal document obtained by CNBC points to a team of more than a dozen staff reporting to executive Rachel Jiang, including Missy Krasner, who joined last year after working at Box and Google.

The team is thought to be focused on targeting areas such as diabetes management, care for mothers and babies, and the growing problem of ageing, socially isolated populations, where Alexa-powered devices might be able to provide advice and assistance.

Last year, Amazon worked with pharmaceuticals giant Merck on a programme to encourage the creation of Alexa skills to help people with diabetes manage their care. Other Alexa healthcare skills are already available, such as Mayo Clinic First Aid, WebMD, the UK-focused Virtual Nurse (which accesses NHS data), and KidsMD, among many others.

The social context

The need for greater technology investment in health and social care is real. By 2020 there will be 12 million people over the age of 65 in the UK alone, and by 2035 that figure will have risen to 17 million.

However, in England and Wales, 2015-16 care expenditure stood at £8.34 billion, only fractionally more than the £8.3 billion spent a decade earlier. Add in the effects of inflation and an increase of nearly two million in the 65+ population over that period, and this represents a per capita reduction in available funds of more than one-third.

Similar trends can be observed throughout the world.

At the same time, health, fitness, and well-being are a core focus for wearable technology providers, whether of mass-market items such as the Apple Watch and Fitbit, or of specialist sensors and other devices. For example, popular wearables have been proven to help predict heart problems and diabetes, while dedicated devices can detect stomach problems and poor diets, or help people to recover from serious injury.

Robots are also being developed to help with health and social care – such as SoftBank’s long-running Romeo project, which has yet to become a commercial reality. However, the safety and security of robots in medical roles is itself a major challenge.

Alexa’s growing intelligence

Amazon has recently been expanding Alexa’s abilities into the enterprise realm, and in the consumer space so that Alexa-powered devices, including smart TVs, will be able to remember owners, learn their preferences, and have more natural conversations.

Amazon is also believed to be developing its own range of ‘Vesta’ Alexa-powered robots.

However, healthcare represents a different type of challenge for the retail and Web services giant, beyond partnering with care providers or information resources to create new Alexa skills.

For example, the US’ Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) safeguards the privacy and security of medical information, while medical devices themselves are tightly regulated for use in clinical settings, which may preclude the ability to offer OTA updates.

Amazon’s Krasner played a key role in obtaining HIPAA compliance at cloud collaboration tools provider Box. Securing a similar deal for Amazon could allow Alexa to share health data with medical professionals and patients, and allow integration with specialist apps.

Internet of Business says

While Amazon’s move is no surprise, there must be growing concern about its rising prominence across so many different fields.

Amazon would argue – rightly in many ways – that it is simply offering a platform via which others can share their own products and services, including those in health, fitness, and social care. This creates new markets and opportunities for specialist providers – as existing Alexa skill sets demonstrate.

In turn, that offers consumers choice. And of course, they can choose not to be Amazon customers at all.

But not everyone agrees that Amazon is running a good or fair business. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently accused the retailer of effectively rigging markets by benefiting from both sides of deals. Amazon and Google are “both fantastic at being able to rig transactions,” he said. “They have a nice two-sided market that they can subsidise one to advantage [the other].”

Of course, Microsoft is a competitor, and spent well over a decade fighting one of the highest-profile antitrust cases in history with the US government.

However, Internet of Business recently examined the Amazon phenomenon in its own detailed report, which uncovered the potential for Amazon to use Alexa-powered devices to nudge consumers towards preferred partners, products, and services, forcing companies to compete for Alexa skills or find other means of pushing their offerings to the top of Alexa’s, and Amazon’s, list.

By bringing together all aspects of its business, including its Web services division, behind its innocuous smart speakers, Amazon is effectively building a shopping, fulfilment, and delivery empire in every home that buys one. That’s a great business model for Amazon.

However, while the provenance of many Alexa skills may be overt, the commercial relationships behind every Alexa service, skill, offering, or product recommendation in future may not be so visible to the user, creating transparency and competition concerns.

As a result, Amazon may indeed be able to help ageing, vulnerable, or isolated people, and others who are managing health conditions, but it will also see them as a golden ticket for sales opportunities that may or may not benefit them, while potentially locking out the competition.

After all, Facebook can make the same claims about creating a democratic network on which others can innovate. But CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent appearance before Congress demonstrated that the hidden relationships within any platform come with their own downsides and risks.