The Amazon Echo, Echo Dot and Fire TV are now able to give medical advice in a snap of a tongue.
The Alex-enabled devices will ask WebMD for you. So a command such as “Alexa, can you ask WebMD why my tummy aches” will give you a WebMD answer without you needing to type it in yourself.
WebMD’s vice president of mobile products, Ben Greenberg, told The Verge, “[This] is going to be really helpful in situations where you want to access something hands-free. For example, a mom with her baby. The baby’s got a rash and is on amoxicillin, and there’s poop all over the place and it’s scary. The mom can find out that diarrhea is a side effect of amoxicillin, without having to navigate through a visual interface.”
Now hold on. A rash and diarrhea in a baby could be a variety of diagnoses including viral infections such as rotavirus. Some children get diarrhea when they suffer from strep throats or ear infections. So if the mother in the above example discontinued the amoxicillin because Alexa said the diarrhea could be a side effect, the child’s infection could worsen.
Thus for years we physicians have grappled with the concept of patients entrusting a computer with their medical decisions but we can’t compete with Google. Its free, convenient and accessible 24/7.
However a Harvard study in 2015 found online symptom checkers to be accurate only 38% of the time and to triage the user correctly 57% of the time.
Alexa and Google Home are fun, innovative and useful “smart assistants”. WebMD is a wonderful resource when it come to symptoms, articles and medical conditions. The combination of the two does not yield a health care professional with years of experience enabling them to think of the not-so-obvious. Alexa should stick to suggesting restaurants, not medications and MRI’s.
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Daliah Wachs, MD, FAAFP is a nationally syndicated radio personality on GCN Network and Board Certified Family Physician