As a leader at Amazon, Dr. Hanh Le has been involved with the task of to bring Alexa voice technology to healthcare. Her work is focusing on helping democratize access and ultimately improve patient outcomes through the innovative use of artificial intelligence in the development of Alexa health-related skills.
“We hear it all the time: healthcare is broken, it’s siloed, it’s too hard,” Le says. “It’s very easy to jump on that bandwagon and complain about the status quo. It’s much, much harder to say, ‘I’m going to do something about it.’ I want to be part of the solution and to figure out how I can drive improvements to help patients have a better experience when it comes to caring for their health.”
After working for four years as a primary care physician in California, Le left clinical medicine to join Epocrates, a startup company that creates point-of-care drug and disease references for physicians. She then worked as the chief medical officer for Healthline Media. In her role, she worked with the marketing and product management departments to verify that the company’s content was accurate, medically credible, and actionable.
Intrigued by what she was hearing about Amazon’s commitment to investing in healthcare, Le joined Alexa Health and Wellness in April 2021. “As a physician, you think about how you can drive impact and really be meaningful in people’s lives,” says Le. “What I used to do in my clinical practice has amazing ramifications now, when I think of my career at an organization like Amazon.”
In February 2022, the Alexa Health and Wellness team launched two innovative products that Le hopes will address the deficiencies prevalent in traditional care. The Alexa Symptom Checker and Telehealth on Alexa to help Alexa customers connect to diagnostic tools and health services from home by using their voice. In short, Alexa serves as an in-home concierge voice assistant to help consumers access healthcare.
In this interview, Le talks about Alexa’s innovations in the field of healthcare, the importance of AI, and her vision for the future of healthcare.
What are some of the initiatives you have been involved with at Amazon?
When people develop symptoms of illness, they want immediate answers. What do the symptoms mean? Are they serious? What is the appropriate course of action? Alexa Symptom Checker asks the user a series of questions that help identify what’s causing the symptoms and identify next steps.
To launch the Alexa Symptom Checker, the user says, “Alexa, check my symptoms,” “Alexa, I don’t feel well,” or something similar. Alexa then asks the user a series of questions, beginning with background information, such as gender, age, and medical history. Using AI, Alexa Symptom Checker generates a short list of potential medical conditions. The customer can then retrieve additional information to investigate each condition further to reveal the cause of the illness.
The Alexa Symptom Checker also helps users make informed decisions about the next steps for treatment and care. The customer can connect to Amazon Pharmacy for home delivery of medication or speak with a physician.
My team is also working on telehealth with Alexa in partnership with Teladoc, a leading nation-wide telehealth provider. Throughout the United States, people living in rural or remote areas have limited access to clinical care. In some cases, patients must drive hours or across state lines just to see a doctor, which is especially frightening for the elderly or those with chronic conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic restricted access further because many hospitals and clinics had to close.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual appointments were becoming more widely available. But to schedule an appointment, patients had to use a mobile device or online interface. This created a barrier for the visually impaired, and the nuances of navigating electronics are inconvenient for those dealing with illness.
Using telehealth on Alexa, symptomatic patients do not have to drive to the emergency room or hospital to receive clinical care or to have a pre-existing relationship with a doctor. An Alexa customer can simply say, “Alexa, I want to talk to a doctor,” and they can reach a call center and connect to a physician within minutes. The patient then has a virtual doctor’s visit from the safety, convenience, and comfort of home. The virtual visit may be covered by their insurance, reducing the out-of-pocket cost, but if not, the maximum charge for the patient is $75.
Although Telehealth on Alexa is not meant for emergency scenarios, it expedites general medicine visits, such as consultations for a cold, a cough, allergies, or a headache. “We have been able to provide access to clinical medicine to people in their homes and broaden access to care. Whether you live in a rural area or an urban area in the United States, with Alexa people can get access to care at any time.”
Why is Alexa uniquely positioned to help patients access better healthcare?
Providing quality healthcare involves making predictions about future health outcomes – and here’s where the artificial intelligence powering Alexa comes in handy.
Leveraging machine learning and AI, Alexa could provide insights and information to help customers make reliable healthcare-related decisions. Because Alexa is the ever-ready health assistant in your home, it can tackle one of the biggest challenges in clinical medicine - how to answer patients’ questions and address their concerns outside of the clinical visit. Because Alexa is available 24/7, it could also help customers manage chronic conditions, remind them to take their medications, and assist them to stay on track with their clinical care plan.
For instance, with Alexa’s automated reminders and daily check-ins, Alexa enables a reduced reliance on follow-up calls from human care managers following hospitalization, surgery, or other treatments. If Alexa detects something is amiss in the patient’s voice responses, it can alert a healthcare professional. In this way, Alexa reduces the strain on human resources, while helping physicians direct their time to the patients who require personal attention. This is especially relevant during a time when physician and nursing staff attrition has skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic.
What is your vision for the future of healthcare and wellness?
I envision a future in which Alexa lives in the home across multiple devices, serving as a true health assistant and ally that helps with daily health and wellness. In this world, a constellation of Alexa skills uses AI to facilitate sleep patterns through regular alarms and day-to-day scheduled items; to remind people to exercise, drink water, and prepare healthy foods; and to provide meditation or workout programs. When the customer has a medical need, Alexa helps them quickly connect to physicians and the clinical care team, all through voice navigation and hands-free.
As a physician, I recognize that most people will never see the world’s best cardiologist or oncologist. But everyone should be able to access great health and wellness information, services, products, and tools. We can provide that access and make it more equitable and reachable for everyone. And that’s a very compelling reason for me to work at an organization like Alexa.