Researchers at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) in Boston are prototyping using Amazon Alexa, the AI-powered digital assistant, as a way for patients to check their room number or find out their daily care plan.

John Halamka, CIO at BIDMC has said his team is conducting extensive early work with the Alexa app, which rose to the top of Apple’s App Store charts at the end of 2017, to build a variety of skills that will be useful for patients.

They are using Echo devices, the smart speakers which house Alexa, in pilot inpatient settings (not with real patients) to test Alexa’s ability to understand certain queries.

Some of the queries they’ve been able to develop so far are: “Ask BIDMC to call a nurse”, “Ask BIDMC to give me some inspiration”, “Ask BIDMC what’s my care plan for today”, and “Ask Locate where is Doctor Sarah Mason”.

Halamka told AIMed Magazine, “The value to hospital staff is time saved – we’re enabling employees to spend their time on more cognitive tasks. The Amazon APIs seem to have solved the natural language processing (NLP) issues already. We’ll go into production as soon as Amazon supports Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance for Alexa.”

Because of HIPAA, the federal rules that protect patient privacy when it comes to their personal health data, there are restrictions on what information patients could access through voice assistants like Alexa.

To circumvent this problem for now, BIDMC may use Alexa to give patients non-identifiable information. Alexa has no idea who the person asking questions is, so information it supplies can’t be identified as belonging to a specific patient.

Halamka also revealed that his team are experimenting with sentiment analysis in the context of social media reviews about BIDMC.