Voice-powered, in-home care platform wins Amazon Alexa diabetes competition

By Dave Muoio
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Seattle-based Wellpepper, developers of a digital patient engagement service, have been announced the winners of the Alexa Diabetes Challenge for their voice-enabled diabetes support platform Sugarpod.

Consisting of a scale, foot scanner, and mobile interface along with a Amazon Alexa voice functionality, Sugarpod is designed to support type 2 diabetes care plans by integrating engagement and regular screening into a patient’s daily routine, Wellpepper CEO and Cofounder Anne Weiler explained. The prototype platform does so by living in the home, and permitting numerous engagement interfaces via SMS, email, web, mobile app, and voice.

“There are times when voice is a fantastic interface, and times when voice is not the right interface,” Weiler told MobiHealthNews. “We see this as one of many interfaces that you can use to engage people and meet them where they are.”
Weiler said that the inclusion of prototype hardware in the scale and scanner was new ground for her team, whose existing Wellpepper platform is software-based. However, they pursued the concept when they realized that having both the scale and the scanner in a diabetes patient’s home offered a unique opportunity for regular home check-ins.

“First thing in the morning, [a user] steps on the scale. It takes her weight and then it also asks if it can take pictures of her feet, and then it puts those through a machine-learning image classifier that looks for problems,” Weiler said. “It’s basically looking for early indication of diabetic foot ulcers. Diabetic foot ulcers cost the health system $9 billion a year, and people who have them are at greater risk of amputation, hospitalization, and even death.”

Along with gathering these data, Sugarpod asks users questions about their habits and provides diabetes management tips, relevant educational material, and messages from their care professional. If voice prompts aren’t convenient, patients can also access all of this information on their smart devices through the accompanying mobile app, Weiler explained.

“So, she can do things like take a survey, or she may snap a picture of her lunch to share with her health coach. And then when she gets home in the evening she may interact again with her care plan either on the mobile device or via voice with the Amazon Echo,” she said.

While the platform was imagined and pitched as an in-home solution, the team deployed Sugarpod within health clinics to test and fine-tune its capabilities during development. In light of this implementation’s extremely positive feedback from users and clinicians, Weiler said that her team is no longer ruling out its uses within provider settings as they make plans to move forward with the new platform.

The Alexa Diabetes Challenge was sponsored by Merck, supported by Amazon Web Services, and organized by Luminary Labs. The competition was announced in April, with a submission deadline just a month later. Five finalists were selected among 96 submissions to move into a “Virtual Accelerator” stage of the competition, where they received mentorship in preparation for a live demo for judges in late September. Along with Wellpepper’s $125,000 grand prize, each finalist also received $25,000 in funds and $10,000 in credit to finance their Amazon Web Service usage.