Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa is said to start looking for medical help

If there is no doctor in the house, Amazon’s Alexa will soon be able to summon one.

Amazon and telemedicine provider Teladoc Health are launching a voice-activated virtual care program that will enable customers to receive medical help without having to pick up the phone.

The service for non-emergency health issues will be available 24/7 on Amazon’s Echo devices. Customers can tell the voice assistant Alexa that they want to speak to a doctor, and a Teladoc doctor will initiate a callback on the device.

The program, announced Monday, marks Amazon’s latest expansion into healthcare and another push by the retail giant into a form of care that’s been growing rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Telemedicine is now something that patients have become accustomed to and may expect as an option in their care,” said Lori Uscher-Pines, senior policy researcher at Rand Corp. “(Before) the pandemic, there might not have been as much awareness that this was a service that was available.”

Already dispensing prescription drugs, Amazon is expanding an Amazon Care program launched in 2019 that offers telemedicine visits with the option to send a care provider to the patient if they need an in-person visit.

The company’s recent expansion into healthcare comes as several competitors, including Walmart and drugstore chains CVS and Walgreens, also ramp up their medical offerings. They add nursing clinics or virtual programs to make it easier for patients to find regular help in the fragmented US healthcare system.

Insurers and employers who pay medical bills are pushing it to improve health and reduce hospitalizations or other large medical expenses.

“Healthcare is a huge industry of tremendous value, and it’s ripe for disruption,” said Neil Saunders, Managing Director of GlobalData Retail. “And Amazon sees itself as a disruptor.”

Some hospitals are already using Alexa as voice assistants in patient rooms.

The service, announced Monday, will be available to customers who create an Alexa voice ID. After people tell the voice assistant that they need to speak to a doctor, they are connected to a Teladoc call center and then receive a doctor’s call back.

The cost of a visit is $75 without health insurance.

A Teladoc spokesman said Amazon will not be able to access, record or store the content of the ensuing call.

Amazon is moving deeper into healthcare while other growth engines are slowing. In its most recent quarter, the Seattle-based company reported that its online retail business declined 1%.

Kate McCarthy, senior research director at research firm Gartner, sees room for Amazon to expand beyond simple doctor visits. In particular, she pointed out that the company’s healthcare segment in its cloud computing division aims to develop new services and healthcare products.

McCarthy said she can see Amazon could eventually help monitor patients going home after a hospital stay, using Alexa and sensors to check how often they flush the toilet or open the fridge.

With its prescription services, Amazon hasn’t bitten off a significant stake from its drugstore rivals, but McCarthy noted that it could become a legitimate player.

“There isn’t one kind of magic market entry,” she added, “it’s going to be a combination of things.”

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