How Can Voice Tech Help Health Behavior Change? The Alexa Diabetes Challenge

I’ve gotten to do some cool work things lately. One big one is getting involved in the Alexa Diabetes Challenge, sponsored by Merck & Co., and supported by Amazon Web Services (AWS). Contestants are tasked with coming up with an idea, and later a working prototype, for an intervention that leverages Alexa’s voice technology to support people newly diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. The challenge administrators, Luminary Labs, curated a panel of subject matter experts across a variety of domains to work with the five finalists. I’m supporting them on behavior change, along with Marika Saarinen, a PharmD and certified diabetes educator at Virginia Mason.

The first part of my duties was going to Seattle to attend part of the Innovators’ Boot Camp at the end of July. During the boot camp, Marika and I had the chance to present our perspectives on behavior change to the finalist teams and then have a conversation in a large group. Later, we were able to have 1:1 time with each team to talk behavior change. Given how much the finalists were cramming into a two-day boot camp, our time together was short. Fortunately, we get to continue the conversation through Demo Day in September with weekly office hours.

Apologies for my terrible photo of Dr. Frist. I was trying to avoid being creepy. In retrospect that was probably unnecessary.
Apologies for my terrible photo of Dr. Frist. I was trying to avoid being creepy. In retrospect that was probably unnecessary.

During the boot camp, it turned out that former Senator Dr. Bill Frist was on Amazon’s campus for unrelated reasons and asked to come say hello to the Diabetes Challenge finalists. The timing was auspicious, since the Senate was voting that day on the motion to proceed with changes to American health care. Dr. Frist focused his remarks primarily on his own humanitarian work and the ability of any one talented and motivated individual to make a difference in the lives of others. When asked, he said that he felt the proposed health care legislation was “going in the wrong direction” but urged us to “trust in the process.” I wish he’d said more but got the sense he very much wanted to keep his comments positive and as non-partisan as he could.

What was most memorable about the boot camp was the passion and imagination of the five finalist teams:  DiaBetty, My GluCoach, PIA (Personal Intelligent Agents for Type 2 Diabetes), Sugarpod, and T2D2 (Taming Type 2 Diabetes, Together). Aside from all coming up with great names for their products, each team also found a unique angle on leveraging voice technology to help newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes patients.

The cool thing about a challenge like this is that it increases the likelihood of an innovative technology making it to market quickly. Since each finalist team must make a working prototype of their idea, the path to launch becomes somewhat clearer. Particularly in the highly regulated medical environment, it’s hard to move quickly to bring helpful technology to patients. I’m hopeful that process will be quicker for Alexa and diabetes thanks to this challenge.

In the AWS lobby
In the AWS lobby

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