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Amazon appears to be preparing for a serious move into the world of health.

GeekWire has unearthed an Amazon job listing seeking a “HIPAA Compliance Lead,” referring to the federal privacy law that governs how health data is stored and used. The job was originally listed as part of the Alexa Information group, which handles how Amazon’s voice assistant responds to user requests for information. However, after GeekWire inquired about the job posting, the Alexa categorization was removed.

Amazon has not responded to multiple requests for comment on the job listing.

According to the listing, the company wants “an experienced HIPAA professional” who will oversee security and compliance for “a new initiative.”

The exact nature of that new initiative isn’t clear. But after months of rumors, the listing is the clearest signal yet that Amazon is preparing to launch a major health initiative. Mere hints of such a move by Amazon have caused healthcare and related industries to start preparing for battle against a company with a reputation for upending markets.

The post contained several details that hint where the company is headed. The qualifications for the position include “experience with FDA and the 510K process.” That process is required to receive approval for new medical devices, including software services, before they can be marketed. Software services that require such approval include some apps and telemedicine technologies that are directly involved in a patient’s care or diagnosis.

The original version of the job post put the position in the Alexa Information group, but that designation has since been removed without explanation.

Another qualification for the job: An understanding of Office of the Inspector General compliance standards, guidelines that the OIG has published to help healthcare companies stay within regulations. They apply to a wide swath of industry players, from third-party billers to hospitals to nursing homes.

Adhering to HIPAA and the more recent HITECH law, both of which regulate patient data privacy in a variety of settings, is a core part of the new position. That is notable because, as of October, Alexa wasn’t HIPAA compliant.

And here’s a sign that this is no ordinary regulatory compliance job: Amazon wants its HIPAA Compliance Lead to have “hands on experience using cloud or IoT technologies in professional or personal projects.”

Separately, rumors have swirled recently that Amazon may be starting a telemedicine initiative, with one source telling GeekWire that company recruiters have been contacting doctors and nurse practitioners about the effort.  It’s unclear if that effort could be tied to the new job posting that GeekWire uncovered.

As of Tuesday morning, Amazon also listed six other open positions in the Alexa Information group, all of them on an unspecified “new team” within the division that is aiming to “build a new set of experiences from the ground up.” The positions include four software engineering positions, one technical product manager and one language engineer. It was not immediately clear if these positions are related to the HIPPA Compliance Lead opening.

The Sugarpod, winner of the Alexa Diabetes Challenge, was built by Seattle startup Wellpepper. The contestants faced a unique obstacle because Alexa isn’t HIPAA compliant. That’s an Echo Dot at the top of the Sugarpod device. (Wellpepper Photo)

Amazon has been eyeing the health space for some time. Its Amazon Web Services cloud service is increasingly working with health and life sciences companies and last year it launched the Alexa Diabetes Challenge, a competition that asked third-party companies to program Alexa skills that helped those with diabetes manage the condition.

In October, reports surfaced that the company was looking into selling prescription drugs online. That revelation caused a huge and immediate response in the pharmacy market, although the company did not — and to this day, still hasn’t — publicly confirmed any plans. The instance was yet more proof of Amazon’s power when it comes to disrupting entrenched industries and its willingness to break into new markets.

Moving into health would be a logical step for the Alexa voice assistant, which has already made its way into tens of millions of homes, and regulation may well be the biggest hurdle. If Alexa were to offer a health service, it would likely need to clear the FDA approval process and would be subject to incredibly stringent health data privacy rules.

Robbie Cape, a health tech entrepreneur and co-founder and CEO of virtual care company 98point6, told GeekWire that privacy and adhering to HIPAA would be a huge challenge for any Alexa health service.

“Alexa doesn’t know who is in the room. Alexa doesn’t know who might be listening. Alexa might think it knows who’s talking, but it can’t know who’s present,” Cape said. “When you start aligning those two separate contexts — one context that is meant to be open in a room with a context that is meant to be very, very private and takes your personal health information incredibly seriously — you can imagine you run into some serious problems.”

If Alexa were to move into health applications, she would hardly be the first voice assistant to do so, and not even the first in Seattle. Seattle-based SayKara launched its doctor-focused voice assistant in September, for one. The company’s founder and CEO, Harjinder Sandhu, said his prediction for an Alexa health service would be on the doctor’s side, specifically pulling information out of a patient’s chart.

“Nuance and others have been working on these kinds of use cases for years, and some EHRs are introducing their own voice assistants also. This is definitely the way technology is heading, but we are in the early days,” Sandhu said.

On the potential for Amazon to change the market, he said: “I think the impact will be felt over a longer period of time as the market sorts out which kinds of interactions are really solving a mission critical problem in a useful way, and which are not.”

Mike Hilton, chief product officer of health tech company Accolade, said Amazon may be well positioned to move into a health service like telemedicine and that there is plenty of space for the company in that realm.

“Broadly, our view on innovation in healthcare it that there is plenty of room for more players,” Hilton said. “We think a consumer-centric philosophy will be the winning strategy for tech services in healthcare (and is certainly our approach). And very importantly, data and AI is critical to personalizing healthcare. Obviously, Amazon potentially entering the telemedicine space plays directly into all these themes.”

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