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HIPAA and Voice Activated Virtual Assistants

Voice activated virtual assistantsVoice activated virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant, are utilized more and more by people across the globe, but it’s important to know that virtual assistant technology used by healthcare professionals is not as simple as speaking into your smartphone. An article published last spring by Harvard Business Review states that “in a nationwide survey of pediatricians conducted by Boston Children’s Hospital (not yet published), 62% of respondents said they have used voice-assistant technology, and one-third own, and use, at least one smart speaker.” While voice dictation technology has been around for decades in the medical field, smart speakers and smartphones with virtual assistant software can obviously do much more. However, this technology has yet to become HIPAA compliant so attempting to use it in conjunction with sensitive patient information leaves oneself open for some serious violations.

Vulnerabilities with Voice Activated Virtual Assistants

As we have discussed in previous blogs, Ransomware hackers routinely target the medical field for private health information which can be lucrative for them. Increasingly, these hackers are focusing their attacks on smaller offices which do not always utilize the best I.T. services available to them. This makes vulnerable devices, such as those utilizing virtual assistant software more susceptible.

In addition to possible hacking, it’s common knowledge that voice activated software can be challenging when trying to utilize it for simple tasks such as a grocery lists. So, attempting to use the current technology to convey complicated medical terminology or relay the names of many pharmaceuticals just doesn’t make sense. Until there are safeguards in place which can guarantee healthcare related tasks are not vulnerable to mistakes, virtual assistant technology simply cannot be utilized effectively in a healthcare setting.

Vulnerabilities with Voice Activated Virtual AssistantsWays VA’s Can Help in Healthcare

While virtual assistant software is not currently HIPAA compliant, there have been ways it has been able to offer general medical advice not bound by HIPAA. Amazon Alexa’s KidsMD, launched in 2016 in conjunction with Boston Children’s Hospital, and provides health advice to parents regarding their children’s fever and medication dosing. The app can be downloaded to any Alexa enabled device such as Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Amazon Tap and Amazon Fire TV and gives parents the ability to ask about different symptoms that their child may be experiencing from fever and cough to shortness of breath or unusual fatigue. Parents or caregivers can also ask about weight and age guidelines as they relate to over-the-counter drug dosages.

Other ways VA’s are currently being utilized are through a patient’s own, personal device for medication reminders and finding out more about medical terms and definitions. So, the technology is useful for some patients.

Physician Feedback

According to the pediatricians surveyed by Harvard Business Review, only 16% stated that they would not try virtual assistant technology. However, many who would try it, said they were less likely to do so while treating their patients due to a patient’s possible reaction to what was recommended by the virtual assistant or the doctor overriding recommendations made by the technology. One way in which doctors thought voice assistants could be utilized in the future was in populating medical questionnaires prior to an office visit to help save time. In addition, 55% of doctors surveyed were not entirely confident about the reliability of answers provided by virtual assistant technology. 68% said that knowing the content came from a reliable source such as Boston Children’s Hospital would make them more confident in utilizing the information provided.

While physicians and other healthcare professionals may be tempted to use voice activated virtual assistants in some aspects of their jobs to save time, attempting to use them with HIPAA protected data can be detrimental. Until the technology is fully HIPAA compliant, it is recommended by HIPAA certified I.T. professionals, such as Data Fast Solutions, that virtual assistant technology be left for simpler tasks in a user’s day-to-day personal life.

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