Amazon Alexa Gives Health Advice. Should You Listen?

Amazon Alexa Gives Health Advice. Should You Listen?
Photo courtesy of HealthTap

For two days, my head throbbed and my nose wouldn’t stop running. Plus, there was a nagging, tingly sensation behind my ears and soreness forming in the back of my throat. I couldn’t deny it any longer…I was getting sick.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. I was leaving for vacation in a few days and with the mad rush to clear my to-do list before a week away, I definitely didn’t have time to see a doctor. Of course, I’m not alone. A 2015 study from Zocdoc found that roughly one-third of people say it’s difficult to schedule a last-minute appointment with a doctor when they’re feeling sick. And 43 percent said it was easier to diagnose and treat themselves (hi, Google).

While I could search my symptoms on the good old Internet, I wished for an easier and faster way to determine whether I have a bad case of allergies or something more serious.

Well, Amazon made that wish come true.

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Dr. A.I. Will See You Now

“The ability to help patients figure out where to go first is going to be increasingly important in our healthcare system.”

Enter Dr. A.I., a personalized, artificial intelligence-powered “doctor.” This version of virtual care comes from HealthTap — an interactive health practice that provides access to a network of more than 107,000 doctors through video, text or voice. Recently HealthTap partnered with Amazon to bring a voice-activated version of Dr. A.I. into your home through Alexa, the personal assistant feature on the Amazon Echo device.

Instead of completing an online symptom check, Dr. A.I. asks questions about your condition, will provide a possible diagnose and point you to various treatment options. It may recommend that you schedule an appointment or phone consult with a doctor (and it will help you do that) or it may direct you to seek more urgent care.

“The ability to help patients figure out where to go first is going to be increasingly important in our healthcare system where doctors and patients are both frustrated,” says Lyle Berkowitz, MD, primary care physician and Director of Innovation at Northwestern Medicine.

Dr. A.I. has the potential to empower patients and help them understand their symptoms, especially those who may not have time to see a doctor, may be uninsured or may not be able to operate a computer or smartphone. And for those who can’t see a doctor face-to-face, it could help soothe nerves by offering some idea of the problem.

“But the reality is that it’s not quite there yet,” says Dr. Berkowitz. “Ultimately, it can’t truly diagnose, manage or treat your symptoms.”

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Hey Alexa, Can You Cure Me?

When I sat down for my consult, Dr. A.I. reminded me that it’s here to provide information, and that only a real doctor can diagnose me. It asked me to name my symptoms — nasal congestion, fatigue and headache — the severity of the symptoms and, for the headaches, how long I’ve experienced them.

Since the service is new, HealthTap is still working through some kinks, particularly its voice recognition system. For example, Dr. A.I. asked me how long I experienced headaches and gave me three options to choose from. But when I stated my choice back to Dr. A.I., it didn’t understand me. I repeated my answer multiple times, speaking slowly and clearly and even choosing different answers. The system kept looping through the same question and offered no way to exit or return to a previous question. Another time, when I said, “stuffy nose,” Dr. A.I. thought I said “difficulty learning new things.” There’s no option to correct Dr. A.I.

In all, it took me five attempts before I finally receiving a potential diagnosis.

Based on the information, it provides a list of five possible conditions, ranked from most likely to possible. My options ranged from an upper respiratory infection to the flu to the common cold. Not the clearest prognosis after all.

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“We need companies like HealthTap to keep pushing the envelope.”

The biggest problem — and a main component of good medical care — is that it Dr. A.I. doesn’t know your medical history. “The combination of contextually who you are, what your issues are and your medical history — say, do you have a history of heart disease? Diabetes? Sinus infections? — that all plays into the history doctors take, in addition to physically looking at you,” says Dr. Berkowitz. “The only thing this system knows is your sex and age, unless it’s getting information from somewhere else. It gives you a very generic diagnosis.”

General information appeared to be its strong suit. When I requested info on upper respiratory infections, it described the common symptoms of the viral infection and that it’s typically self-treated. Keep in mind, Alexa doesn’t provide advice for managing your illness at home (and rightfully so), which left me feeling no better informed than when I started. However, she did offer to connect me to a doctor in HealthTap’s network. (Depending on your insurance and other forms of payment, this might cost around $44.)

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Dr. A.I., Not for Emergencies

Dr. Berkowitz points out another limitation to the current system: The artificial intelligence powering Dr. A.I. is based on data gathered from the current consumers using HealthTap’s application. When Dr. Berkowitz tested the service, he described symptoms of exertional chest pain, which could be caused by blockage in the blood vessels around the heart. Dr. A.I. simply diagnosed him with a cold or reflux.

“That’s worrisome,” he says. “But it makes sense that it couldn’t diagnose it. No one is going to HealthTap for coronary heart disease. They’re using it for minor issues like heartburn and sinus pain.” In other words, the service is much better suited for acute and minor issues, like my cold.

“Use your common sense and exercise caution,” recommends Dr. Berkowitz, especially since the system is still fairly new and they’re likely working out the bugs. The potential of artificial intelligence is there, he says, but it needs to continue to improve and become refined. “We need companies like HealthTap to keep pushing the envelope,” he says.

So, should you turn to Alexa and Dr. A.I. every time you’re feeling sick? Probably not. And you definitely shouldn’t skip your doctor’s appointment when you can get there. But Dr. A.I. offers a good starting place for care.

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