E-Patient Update: Alexa Nowhere Near Ready For Healthcare Prime Time

Folks, I just purchased an Amazon Echo (Alexa) and I’ll tell you up front that I love it. I’m enjoying the heck out of summoning my favorite music with a simple voice command, ordering up a hypnotherapy session when my back hurts and tracking Amazon packages with a four-word request. I’m not sure all of these options are important but they sure are fun to use.

Being who I am, I’ve also checked out what, if anything, Alexa can do to address health issues. I tested it out with some simple but important comments related to my health. I had high hopes, but its performance turned out to be spotty. My statements included:

“Alexa, I’m hungry.”
“Alexa, I have a migraine.”
”Alexa, I’m lonely.”
”Alexa, I’m anxious.”
”Alexa, my chest hurts.”
“Alexa, I can’t breathe.”
“Alexa, I need help.”
“Alexa, I’m suicidal.”
“Alexa, my face is drooping.”

In running these informal tests, it became pretty clear what the Echo was and was not set up to do. In short, it offered brief but appropriate response to communications that involved conditions (such as experiencing suicidality) but drew a blank when confronted with some serious symptoms.

For example, when I told the Echo that I had a migraine, she (yes, it has a female voice and I’ve given it a gender) offered vague but helpful suggestions on how to deal with headaches, while warning me to call 911 if it got much worse suddenly. She also responded appropriately when I said I was lonely or that I needed help.

On the other hand, some of the symptoms I asked about drew the response “I don’t know about that.” I realize that Alexa isn’t a substitute for a clinician and it can’t triage me, but even a blanket suggestion that I call 911 would’ve been nice.

It’s clear that part of the problem is Echo’s reliance on “skills,” apps which seem to interact with its core systems. It can’t offer very much in the way of information or referral unless you invoke one of these skills with an “open” command. (The Echo can tell you a joke, though. A lame joke, but a joke nonetheless.)

Not only that, while I’m sure I missed some things, the selection of skills seems to be relatively minimal for such a prominent platform, particularly one backed by a giant like Amazon. That’s particularly true in the case of health-related skills. Visualize where chatbots and consumer-oriented AI were a couple of years ago and you’ll get the picture.

Ultimately, my guess is that physicians will prescribe Alexa alongside connected glucose meters, smart scales and the like, but not very soon. As my colleague John Lynn points out, information shared via the Echo isn’t confidential, as the Alexa isn’t HIPAA-compliant, and that’s just one of many difficulties that the healthcare industry will need to overcome before deploying this otherwise nifty device.

Still, like John, I have little doubt that the Echo and his siblings will eventually support medical practice in one form or another. It’s just a matter of how quickly it moves from an embryonic stage to a fully-fledged technology ecosystem linked with the excellent tools and apps that already exist.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.