Is Amazon's Halo good or bad for healthcare? 5 observations

Amazon launched a health-tracking device, Halo, on Aug. 27, the company's first foray into the wearables market with EHR vendor Cerner.

Halo integrates with Cerner's products, allowing users to share their health data directly into the EHR. Sharp HealthCare in San Diego is the first health system to use the technology, which includes advanced sensors to connect data, including the user's temperature, heart rate and sleep and fitness information. The wearable also has two microphones that users can turn on and off to analyze energy and positivity in their voices.

The move puts Amazon in direct competition with Apple and Fitbit, which Google's parent company entered into an agreement to acquire for $2.1 billion last November.


According to Grand View Research, the global wearable technology market was valued at $32.6 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow at a 15.9 percent compound annual growth rate through 2027. The pandemic will likely lead to more people using wearables, according to the report, and some companies are eager to develop wearables that identify warning signs of virus symptoms.

Some in the industry see the move as disruptive, while others don't see it as anything new.

"Amazon launching the Halo health tracker could be a giant leap by Amazon, in not only the healthcare sector, but also for Amazon itself, courtesy its interconnected flywheels business model. Amazon’s Health Tracker will considerably impact the remote healthcare services industry," said Jitin Narang, chief marketing officer for TechAhead, a mobile app development company. "Through integration with Cerner EHR, the data collected by the app could be shared with the doctors, and appropriate remote consultation can be provided to the patients without the requirement to visit the hospitals."

While Mark Weisman, MD, CMIO of Peninsula Regional Health System in Salisbury, Md., agrees that the EHR integration is a good feature for Halo, he is less enthusiastic about the technology.

"I think this is an incremental advance in wearable sensors, but not a revolutionary breakthrough product," he said. "Body fat analysis and mood identification in a wearable are new and intriguing, but as a primary care provider, I cannot say that either data point is something I was looking for from my patients. In my 20 years in internal medicine, I have never said that I would improve health if I only had a daily body fat analysis."

Here are five observations about the technology:

1. The wearable will boost remote patient monitoring capabilities for both mental and physical health. Halo tracks exercise, medicine schedules and sleep patterns to give clinicians an idea of the user's daily routines. The tone function enables mental health monitoring by analyzing the user's voice during stressful times and can give psychiatrists a more detailed analysis of their patients' emotions daily.

"The Halo has unique features that haven't been seen elsewhere, like emotional state reflected in the voice, to address stress as well as physical conditions," said Theresa Hush, CEO of Roji Health Intelligence, a healthcare technology and data company.

"With the additional heft of data valuable to patients’ physicians, consumer wearables could help physicians and patients work together to diagnose and improve health," said Ms. Hush. "In a pandemic where telehealth has grown to be a primary medium for patient visits with their physicians, that would be the real game changer."

But will clinicians find value in the data or will it be more valuable to self-motivated users?

"For individual use, I personally think it’s a fun toy, and I would be interested in trying it out," said Dr. Weisman. "As a CMIO, my overall impression is that I am underwhelmed. It is not a device that is going to significantly advance medicine and is more likely to be collecting dust in the nightstand drawer after six months."

2. Halo integrates with Cerner's EHR as well as Amazon Echo to give more real-time updates. The Echo device can give users a reminder to take specific medications at a particular time. Halo also automatically orders medications for delivery when they are low.

The data integration can help healthcare providers improve workflows as well.

"When data is collected efficiently and feeds into the EMR, the care team benefits from reduced administrative burden and a broader base of information on which to base their decisions," said Stefan Behrens, co-founder and CEO of Gyant, an artificial intelligence healthcare startup. "It's great to see Cerner playing an active role to support this movement and expand the breadth of its platform."

Dr. Weisman said the integration will be a good feature if it can be accompanied by artificial intelligence that summarizes data and presents it to the clinician in a meaningful way. It's unclear whether Amazon performs that function, or if the EHR must synthesize the data.

"If it’s just a steady stream of raw data that is being thrown at me, then it does more damage than good," he said.

3. User data security and privacy are a potential red flag for Halo.

"The customers should have a clear say on what data they want to be collected by Amazon, and they must have the right to access and delete the collected data if they want to do so," said Mr. Narang.

The technology will only be good for healthcare if the companies deliver on their security promises, said Reuben Yonatan, founder and CEO of GetVoIP, a cloud communications adviser. Amazon reported that the data is encrypted, and users can delete data and voice samples at will.

"If the security proves to be as comprehensive as stated, it will open the healthcare industry to similar tech in the future, which will further improve the industry," Mr. Yonatan said.

4. The pandemic accelerated trends toward virtual care, remote monitoring and consumerism in healthcare. Patients are relying more on digital interactions with healthcare providers and expect a personalized experience.

"I'm really happy to see a third horse in the wearable race with Amazon’s latest announcement, alongside Apple and Fitbit," said Chris Fernandez, CEO of EnsoData, an artificial intelligence company focused on diagnostic health. "The healthcare industry and greater society stands to gain from wearable use; we’re encouraged that this new competition will drive faster adoption and the development of higher quality data."

Kristin Valdes, founder and CEO of b.well Connected Health concurred.

"We need to continue to leverage the technology of tomorrow to improve the healthcare experience so it’s individualized to each person and their needs," she said. "Real-time data directly from the consumer will allow healthcare stakeholders to focus on preventive care, driving consumers to necessary services, instead of sick care."

5. Jeanette Numbers, co-founder and principal of user experience and product design studio Loft, said that wearables are about helping people feel normal and take action when symptoms arise. But the technology is potentially capable of much more.

"Tracking and monitoring is yesterday's game. What if wearables of the future not only sensed the needs of the body, but acted on them? What if they provided more than a trend report and actually tapped into your senses to proactively encourage change, through haptics, thermal sensation and more? To give rather than take," she asked. "The healthcare industry is inherently focused on getting you back to 'OK' status, but what if we explored moving past just feeling OK to feeling like a better version of yourself today and in the future? That's what the next generation wearables are poised to do, and this one misses the mark."

 More articles on health IT:
UPMC grows innovation, IT initiatives in the last 4 months: 10 things to know
5 hospital execs that jumped ship to tech companies in 2020
Health innovation insider: 13 rapid-fire Qs with Atrium Health's Chief Data and Digital Officer Omer Awan

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