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HIPAA in the Era of Digital Assistants

Other than a virtual assistant on my mobile phone, I don’t have a digital-assistant device, although I’ve thought of getting one.

Other than a virtual assistant on my mobile phone, I don’t have a digital-assistant device, although I’ve thought of getting one. How convenient to be able to turn on lights, lock doors, play music, and order groceries merely by speaking to a small pod-like contraption that sits on my desk or countertop! If you own a digital assistant, you are not alone. It appears they are growing in popularity, with one market analysis site predicting that their numbers will exceed 7.5 billion by the year 2021.1

When it comes to sharing health care information on such devices, privacy is an especially sensitive issue. On the other hand, the convenience offered by digital assistants is difficult to ignore, and they can be important for individuals who are unable to perform certain tasks because of physical challenges. Enhancing communication with medical providers, insurance companies, or pharmacies could be helpful for someone who is home-bound, for example. But is health information secure if shared via a digital assistant?

In April, one digital assistant was introduced that can conform with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) standards. It is anticipated that more brands of digital assistants will follow with similar skill sets. There are six participants in this initial program:2

  • Express Scripts, a pharmacy services organization that delivers prescriptions to homes
  • Cigna Health Today by Cigna, a global health service company
  • My Children’s Enhanced Recovery After Surgery by Boston Children’s Hospital
  • Swedish Health Connect by Providence St. Joseph Health, a health care system with 51 hospitals across seven states and 829 clinics
  • Atrium Health, a health care system with more than 900 care locations throughout North and South Carolina and Georgia
  • Livongo, a consumer digital health company that creates interactions with people who have chronic conditions, such as diabetes

These companies can provide specific information, such as when prescription drugs will be delivered to a person’s home, as well as daily health tips. They can also help parents provide recovery information to medical teams after a child’s heart surgery, schedule health care appointments, find the closest urgent care facility or hospital, and help monitor blood sugar levels. While these capabilities are limited, it’s the beginning of a new era in which digital assistants will provide helpful and possibly crucial health care services for users.

Change can be challenging but it’s inevitable. As for me, I’m looking forward to the day when patients can request of their digital assistant: “Please schedule an appointment with my dental hygienist.”

Jill Rethman, RDH, BA
Editor in Chief


  1. DeRenesse R. Virtual digital assistants to overtake world population by 2021. Available​resources/​product-content/​virtual-digital-assistants-to-overtake-world-population-by-2021. Accessed May 15, 2019.
  2. Jiang R. Introducing new Alexa healthcare skills. Available at:https:/​/​​blogs/​alexa/​post/​ff33dbc7-6cf5-4db8-b203-99144a251a21/​introducing-new-alexa-healthcare-skills. Accessed May 15, 2019.

From Dimensions of Dental Hygiene. June 2019;17(6):6.

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