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Amazon voice assistant Alexa will start seeking help from a doctor Health

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TOM MURPHY & AN DINOCENCIO – Associated Press

If there is no doctor in the house, Alexa from Amazon will soon be able to call him.

Amazon and telemedicine provider Teladoc Health are launching a virtual aid program with voice activation that allows customers to receive medical care without removing their phones.

The service for non-emergency health issues will be available around the clock on Amazon Echo devices. Customers can tell Alexa’s voice assistant that they want to talk to a doctor, and this will prompt a call back on the device from Teladoc’s doctor.

The program, announced Monday, marks Amazon’s latest expansion in healthcare and another push from the retail giant to a form of relief that grew rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Telehealth now is something patients are used to and can expect as an option to help them,” said Lori Asher-Pines, a senior fellow at Rand Corp. “(Before) the pandemic there might not have been so much awareness that this is a service that is available.”

Amazon is already releasing prescription drugs, and is expanding the Amazon Care program it launched in 2019, which offers telemedicine visits with the option of sending a patient to a health care provider if they need a personal visit.

The company’s latest expansion of healthcare comes when several competitors, including Walmart and the CVS and Walgreens pharmacy chains, are also expanding their healthcare offerings. They add clinics or virtual programs to facilitate regular patient care in the fragmented U.S. health care system.

Insurers and employers who pay medical bills are pursuing this as a way to improve health and reduce hospital stays or other high medical costs.

“Healthcare is a huge industry of tremendous value, and it’s ripe for failure,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. “And Amazon sees itself as an infringer.”

Some hospitals already use Alexa as a voice assistant in patient rooms. In the UK, Alexa is working with the country’s National Health Service to help answer medical questions with advice from the country’s official website.

The service, announced Monday, will be available to customers who create an Alexa voice ID. After the voice assistant informs them that they need to talk to the doctor, people will be connected to the Teladoc call center and then receive a call back from the doctor.

Calls are only audio so far, but companies say they expect to add videos soon. In some cases, doctors may prescribe medication.

Customers can get a call back the same day, but it may depend on the availability of doctors in the state where the patient is located, Teladoc spokesman Chris Savarez said. He noted that a prolonged pandemic could lead to increased waiting times.

The cost of the visit may vary depending on the patient’s coverage. Without insurance, calls will cost $ 75.

Savarez said Amazon would not be able to access, record or store the contents of the next call.

Amazon is delving into healthcare as other growth engines slow down. In its most recent quarter, the Seattle-based company reported its Online retail business fell 1%.

Kate McCarthy, senior research director at research firm Gartner, sees Amazon’s ability to go beyond simple doctor calls. She noted that the company’s healthcare segment in the cloud computing division aims to create new healthcare services and products.

McCarthy said she could see how Amazon ended up helping monitor patients returning home after a hospital stay, using Alexa and sensors to check how often they flush toilet water or open the refrigerator.

Thanks to prescription services, Amazon has not bought a significant stake from its competitors in pharmacies, but McCarthy said it could become a legitimate player.

“There is no one kind of magic entry into the market,” she added, “it will be a combination of things.”

Telemedicine in general grew rapidly when the pandemic first struck the United States, and patients wanted to stay home rather than visit a doctor’s office.

Since then, virtual visits have declined slightly as office visits have resumed widely. But Usher Pines said research shows patients are still interested.

Many want telemedicine to be available when they need its convenience rather than as a replacement for personal care.

“Most people don’t want it to cannibalize their personal concerns,” she said. “They still want those options.”

Follow Tom Murphy on Twitter: https://twitter.com/thpmurphy

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed without permission.

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