(AP) – Amazon and telemedicine provider Teladoc Health are launching a voice-activated virtual care program that lets customers get medical help without picking up their phone.
The service, for health issues that aren’t emergencies, will be available 24 hours a day on Amazon’s Echo devices.
Customers can tell the Alexa voice assistant that they want to speak to a doctor, which will trigger a callback on the device by a Teladoc doctor.
The program, announced Monday, marks Amazon’s latest expansion into healthcare and another push by the retail giant into a form of care that has grown rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Telehealth is now something that patients have become accustomed to and can expect as an option for their care,” said Lori Uscher-Pines, senior policy researcher at Rand Corp. “(Before) the pandemic, there might not have been this realization that this was an available service.
Amazon already distributes prescription drugs and is expanding an Amazon Care program launched in 2019 that offers telemedicine visits with the ability to send a care provider to the patient if they need an in-person visit.
The company’s latest healthcare expansion comes as several rivals, including Walmart and drugstore chains CVS and Walgreens, are also bolstering their medical offerings. They are adding care 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 for this as a way to improve health and reduce hospital stays or other major medical expenses.
“Healthcare is a huge industry of huge 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 a voice assistant in patient rooms.
The service announced on Monday will be available to customers who create an Alexa Voice ID. After telling the voice assistant that they need to speak to a doctor, people will be connected to a Teladoc call center and then called back by a doctor.
The cost of a visit will be $75 without health insurance.
A Teladoc spokesperson said Amazon would not be able to access, record or store the content of the ensuing call.
Amazon is moving deeper into healthcare as other growth engines slow. In its most recent quarter, the Seattle-based company reported that its online retail business fell 1%.
Kate McCarthy, senior research director at research firm Gartner, believes Amazon can go beyond simple medical calls. In particular, she noted that the company’s healthcare segment in its cloud computing division aims to deliver new healthcare services and products.
McCarthy said she could eventually see Amazon help monitor patients returning home from hospital stays, using Alexa and sensors to check how often they flush the toilet or open the fridge. .
With its prescription services, Amazon hasn’t lost a significant share of its pharmacy rivals, but McCarthy noted it could become a legitimate player.
“There is no one type of magic market entry,” she added. “It will be a combination of things.”