NEWS
December 16, 2021

“Smart Hospital Rooms” Powered by Alexa are Being Introduced in Many Healthcare Facilities

“Smart Hospital Rooms” Powered by Alexa are Being Introduced in Many Healthcare Facilities

Move aside, call lights, because there’s a new way to get nurses’ attention: Alexa.

In hospitals and senior centers across the country, a form of Alexa—powered by Amazon and under the brand Alexa Smart Properties, which is already used in hotels and apartment complexes—is being installed as part of integrative healthcare technology. The voice-powered technology is meant to both better connect patients to team members and help them with quality of life. For instance, Alexa can be used to both send a message to the healthcare team when a patient needs something (like a dry turkey sandwich or a new pillow), control things like lights in the room and the TV, as well as bring the patient news or entertainment, all completely hands-free. 

The beauty of using a technology like Alexa in a hospital setting, of course, is that it’s voice-powered. Patients that are bed-bound or have mobility restrictions can still utilize voice in order to communicate or even control things in their room, such as lights or bed settings. 

There are clearly many benefits that can be imagined with Alexa technology and it doesn’t look like it will be too long before voice-powered AI in the healthcare setting is completely normal. But will it be a boon to healthcare? Here’s what we know so far, along with how the technology is being utilized and what nurses can expect from working alongside Alexa. 

“A Game Changer”

While voice-powered technology in patients’ rooms might sound a bit futuristic, apparently it’s already been rolled out. Cedars-Sinai installed Amazon Echoes in 100 patient rooms in 2019 and BayCare Health System in the sunshine state piloted the technology in two hospitals the same year, with plans to install Alexa devices in 2,500 patient rooms across 14 other hospitals. 

Peachy Hain, executive director of Medical and Surgical Services at Cedars-Sinai, said in a statement that the technology will be a “total game-changer” for enhancing the hospital’s experience for patients. 

"Voice is intuitive for patients, regardless of age or tech-savviness," Peachy Hain stated. "Since it's so easy to operate, patients can use Alexa to connect with their care team and stay entertained as soon as they settle in, while care providers can streamline tasks to make more time to care for those patients. It's a total game-changer for enhancing our hospital experience."

The Alexa technology that has already been implemented also works with patients outside of the hospital setting as well. By integrating Alexa into their healthcare systems, some hospitals and healthcare companies are utilizing the technology to provide services to parents and patients who are looking to make an appointment or wondering what the ER wait time is. 

For instance, Boston Children's Hospitals uses a form of the technology to connect with parents of patients for recovery progress updates and schedule post-op appointments. Swedish Health Connect (by Providence St. Joseph Health) uses it to help patients find an urgent care center near them and schedule appointments. And with digital health company Livongo, Alexa can respond with members’ last blood sugar readings, track blood sugar trends, and relay personalized health nudges. 

How Does it Work?

In the initial rollout in Cedar-Sinai, an Amazon Echo was placed in-patient rooms and used for voice control for things like the TV or to send a message to a nurse. The Echo would then “interpret” the message and it would be routed to the appropriate team member. Medication requests would go to a nurse, for instance, while a request for water might go to a CNA. The message is also moved up the chain of command if it is not addressed (which definitely doesn’t happen with a traditional call light, so that’s an interesting feature).

In the upcoming rollouts, the Alexa technology will work much like a smart hub in a home does: the entire room will be a “smart room” and the patient can use voice controls to do things like send a message to the healthcare team, order meals, and adjust the TV or lights. They can even use it as a communication portal to talk to their loved ones directly from their room. Especially during the pandemic, nurses and other healthcare team members used Alexa for “Drop-Ins” to remotely “drop-in” on residents and patients to see how they were doing, communicate something to them, or provide education. 

In assisted living and senior care facilities, the Alexa device also serves as an information hub, relaying information such as the activity schedule, weather, menu, along with brain-boosting entertainment like interactive games and podcasts. Each patient can have its own programmed contact list, so the patient can talk to loved ones with only a voice control. And the Alexa device can even be set to “Do Not Disturb” if the resident would like to take a nap or rest. 

And because the Alexa Smart Properties brand was specifically designed to first be implemented in senior care facilities, the technology is also HIPPA-compliant. So while the devices can be used for helpful medical care like medication tracking, safeguards ensure health information is protected. Additionally, voice recordings are not stored. 

Pros and Cons

Obviously, spokespeople for Amazon are excited about the possibilities for using Alexa in hospitals. (As if Bezos needed more income. Sigh.) 

“The current use cases for Alexa Smart Properties are just the tip of the iceberg,” Liron Torres, global leader of Alexa Smart Properties told Fierce Healthcare. But is that iceberg going to lead to a disaster? Let’s consider some of the pros and cons of using Alexa in a healthcare setting. 

Pros

  • Less used surfaces to disinfect. This is a big one—things like remotes, in-room phones, light switches, and call lights could all be significantly touched less or even eliminated, cutting down on cleaning and possible contamination between patients and care providers. 
  • Hands-off communication. Another huge benefit of voice technology is clear after the COVID-19 pandemic—voice technology would enable contact-free communication between a patient and healthcare team. A nurse could safely talk or communicate needs without having to don valuable PPE in order just to find out what the patient needs, then take it all off, dispose of it, then re-don it. 
  • More patient control. Gone are the days when patients would be left in a room without so much as an update. (That shouldn’t happen anyways, but if you’ve ever worked triage in a small rural hospital short-staffed on a full moon, you know it happens.) A smart room could enable patients to see live updates about their plan of care and feel more in control about their care as well. 
  • Improve patient spirits. Isolation was a major problem in the pandemic and some patients who had the Echo in their room at Cedars-Sinai spoke highly of having the technology, because it allowed them to feel less alone and more connected with the outside world. 

Cons

  • Discomfort with technology for some patients. Voice technology could be a barrier for some patients, especially the elderly who may not understand or feel comfortable with voice commands. Additionally, there may be a potential for language barriers.
  • Glitches with roll-out. New technology will inevitably have glitches that could impact care or perceived quality of care.
  • AI > humans. Patients may feel a lack of real-live human contact or perceive that AI is preferred over face-to-face communication. 
  • Costly. Obviously, a technology like Alexa in a healthcare setting will be a costly investment. Not only will that initial rollout cost a pretty penny, but the technology will need continual updating and servicing. One can’t help but wonder how the investment compares to the cost of, say, paying staff nurses more or hiring more staff who could actually check on the patients in-person? 
  • System burden on staff. Last, but not least, integrating Alexa into current healthcare software and systems means adding yet another new piece of technology that staff will have to learn how to use. 

We want to hear from you—what do you think? Will “smart rooms” powered by Alexa be a positive move for healthcare? Or will it cause more problems than good? 

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