Before co-founding PrimroseIntel, Jason Gottschalk had never considered himself an entrepreneur. For the last decade, he has worked in the senior care industry, and until a year ago was the executive director at The Village at Rockville, which consists of a 160-bed skilled nursing facility, 50-bed assisted living facility and 200+-resident independent living retirement community.
In that capacity, two things became quite obvious. The first was that despite the very best efforts of caregivers and staff, senior care was laden with inefficiencies. Even things as simple as bell call systems – which allow patients to ring for assistance from their rooms – create a situation where a staff member has to respond to the call, figure out the need, go and meet it and then return. Multiply that interaction over hundreds or thousands of residents per day, and it adds up to a lot of extra time and steps.
The second observation, and the one PrimroseIntel was founded on, was that technology – specifically, voice AI technology – could remarkably improve the situation without adding much in the way of problems.
“Over that time, we just grew increasingly frustrated with the tools and programs available to senior care providers,” PrimroseIntel’s Co-founder Camille Rousse told the Washington Business Journal. “It seemed like we were using a lot of old tools that really weren’t being updated … or bringing in tools from other industries, and trying to make them fit, but they never worked great. So we lined up some seed money and started a company to try to address those concerns.”
The tool they built on the Alexa for Business platform in March 2018, designed to run on the Echo Show device, is optimized to either provide its user with information or to notify staff of specific needs. It understands requests via touch or voice.
The Primrose skill is designed to deliver specifically tailored information, such as calendars, daily schedules and menus. The contact function not only alerts staff that a patient wants something, but also routes specific requests with assigned levels of urgency. The goal is to cut down the amount of time it takes staff to respond, as well as to help seniors enjoy more autonomy, even in residential care.
Just over a year old, Primrose is quite small, as it is just finishing off a pilot and preparing a mid-June general launch. They’ve raised some money – $1.5 million, to be exact – and are not looking for more at present. The goal for 2019 is to hit $100,000 in revenue per month through the end of 2020 and to be profitable by that time.
But they are a small part of an emerging trend over the last year, one that has seen more firms developing Alexa tools and skills for senior medical and lifestyle needs, and more providers looking to expanding voice AI-related offerings.
The development is not accidental. A little over a year ago, Amazon announced senior healthcare was a priority area for Alexa.
“Something … we’ve been building for some period of time and we deeply care about … relates to what happens to older people,” said Babak Parviz, the company’s vice president of special projects. “We have looked at the older population in the context of health … and we know this group has a lot of issues and unmet needs.”
And projects that use Alexa to meet those needs have sprung up at a brisk pace in the last 18 months. One charitable project that installed Alexa devices in a U.K. senior care center proved to be unexpectedly popular, and is now in expansion mode.
“Alexa is an absolute lifeline. I’d be bored stiff without her,” says Ruth Drahota, an 89-year-old resident who has been chatting with Alexa in assisted living for about a year. She did note that the experience was strange at first, but after getting the hang of it, she isn’t sure how should would live without it.
The addition of Alexa was also a large boon to staff, who noted the technology had both streamlined care procedures and generally boosted morale by helping residents feel more engaged and independent.
Boosting that feeling of independence through voice-activated AI is the goal of development firm K4Connect, which has recently partnered with Sacramento-based senior care organization Eskaton. They are working to leverage voice to make environments more livable for all seniors, even those suffering from major motor impairments, blindness and dementia.
“Eskaton believes an environment should be livable at any age, and we are leveraging voice-first technology to achieve that goal,” said Eskaton Chief Strategy Officer Sheri Peifer.
And, according to the experts, we’ve only just seen the beginning of what Amazon Alexa Skills can do for the elderly. With the announcement earlier this year that developers can now build HIPAA-compliant healthcare skills, the ground is fertile for a host of new, highly tailored skills for seniors. Libertana Home Health recently tested the use of an Alexa function to record patient data, resulting in reduced redundancy for caregivers.
Moreover, HIPAA compliance has pushed more home healthcare aides to use and embrace Alexa; at least one major pressure point for some workers adopting the voice assistant in home use contexts was a fear that patient data could be endangered.
Will Alexa ultimately transform senior living, as some of its more enthusiastic supporters claim? That will greatly depend on what gets built, what gains traction and how useful it actually turns out to be – all of which it is too early to call.
But there are an awful lot of innovators all over the world keyed into this use case, and Amazon is a very supportive booster.
Which means we wouldn’t bet against it, either.