Our homes are getting smarter. From thermostats that recognize when you’re not at home and adjust the temperature accordingly, to locks that allow you to lock and unlock doors remotely, even the most mundane aspects of our lives are becoming connected to the internet – all to make your life easier.

If the most basic aspects of our lives have become connected, it makes sense that the discussion has now turned to some of the more important aspects—like our health. In particular, intelligent personal assistants, such as the Amazon Echo Alexa, are being touted as key tools for improving healthcare in the home. However, this technology comes with its own set of risks and concerns about privacy. Surprisingly, privacy is not a huge concern for most when considering the Alexa or its competitors. However, it is quite different when you start to discuss personal health information, often referred to as PHI.

With that said, there is a lot of potential for intelligent personal assistants in the home as the new care team member. They can supply health advice, remind patients to take their medication, and provide remote monitoring for caregivers and family members. Already organizations are beginning to tinker with the Amazon Echo Alexa to see what impact it can have in home healthcare. Ireland-based Accenture has conducted a pilot study to see how Alexa can assist with elders’ daily activities, learn their behaviors, and offer activity suggestions for their well-being. The platform Accenture developed includes a “Family and Carer” portal, accessible via a web browser, that lets family members and caregivers check on elders’ activity—including whether they have taken their medications. WebMD has developed a skill that allows Alexa to deliver its web content to users at home and Boston Children’s Hospital has developed KidsMD, which enables parents to ask Alexa about medical conditions and get advice on basic health. The Texas startup DaVincian Healthcare has developed a skill that focuses on medication adherence and improved communication between patients and caregivers—and will notify family members and caregivers if patients don’t acknowledge to Alexa that they’ve taken their medications.

Most will admit that these skills present exciting possibilities – but a fundamental problem still remains: tools like Alexa are not HIPAA compliant. While HIPAA does not apply to all health app developers, it does apply to all “covered entities” including doctors, health plans and business associates. So, skills that provide generalized assistance like health advice do not need to comply to HIPAA but skills that record personal health information DO need to be compliant.

At the moment, Alexa poses a privacy risk because voice and text have to go through Amazon servers and there is not a particularly secure way to link and lock content to a specific user. Without HIPAA compliance, Alexa’s potential as a new care team member—in and outside the home, is limited – at least for now. For example, Alexa could possibly be used to allow doctors and nurses to transcribe notes, remotely monitor patients or guide nurses and patients through a procedure. But until Amazon makes a HIPAA Compliant version of Alexa, this all remains only in the realm of possibility.

As the CMO for a technology company focused on advancing efficiency and better outcomes, I find the idea of using intelligent personal assistants as a care team member—well – extremely exciting. At the same time, as a compliance and privacy professional I also realize that these tools should not be leveraged without the necessary precautions to protect patients’ privacy and security. Despite our desire to always make life easier, efficiency should not be prioritized at the expense of a privacy and privacy should not be prioritized at the expense of efficiency. The two should be prioritized jointly. To learn how Vaporstream accomplishes this —visit us here or contact us today for a demo.

Contributor- Kristi Perdue Hinkle