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Move Over Dr. Google, Here Comes Dr. Alexa

For those of you who have been following the rise of the ePatient over the years, statistics about patients turning to Google in order to research their various ailments and indulge late night fits of hypochondria are no longer very surprising. Patient use of Google – somewhere over 80% following a diagnosis – has simply become a given in today’s digital-mobile landscape.

Based on Mary Meeker’s recent Internet Trends report though, it looks like “Dr. Google” is about to start facing some very serious competition from voice-activated search bots powered by unsurpassed cloud-based machine intelligence.

Meeker suggests that the Amazon Echo sales growth may be a sign of a significant tipping point which will help drive the ascendance of Voice As a Computing Interface. Alexa, the name of Amazon’s voice assistant, has become increasingly powerful since her debut in 2015. With voice recognition accuracy improving to the 99% range, the Alexa skill kit ecosystem now boasts more than 1,000 different voice-driven applications.

So, what do these applications sound like? First of all, “Dr. Alexa” – like her cousin Siri – has some attitude!

She can also answer all types of basic questions, such as: What time is it? What is today’s weather forecast? Music and movies are also popular uses, along with all types of basic trivia questions:
• “Alexa, tell me about the movie ‘The Revenant’.”
• “Alexa, what movies are playing?”
• “Alexa, play some Bruce Springsteen”
• “Who is the president of Madagascar?”
• “What is the largest river in the world?”

Developers have also been creating special “skills” for the Amazon Echo that can be activated within the device, much like installing an app on a mobile phone. Some of the most popular skills include Domino’s Pizza, Campbell’s Soup Cookbook, 1-800 Flowers, and even Alexa’s Dirty Pickup lines!

We are also starting to see some of the first health-related applications for Echo. Fitbit has launched skills that allow users to query Alexa about their fitness stats for the day. Below is a list of examples of what you can now ask your Fitbit, courtesy of Alexa.

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Alexa can also provide you with words of encouragement that are tailored to the specific time of day. For example, if you ask about your step count in the morning, Alexa may respond with “Time to start movin’ and groovin'” or “Try to take a walk today, but don’t forget to stop and smell the roses.”

Not surprisingly, Tim Roberts, Executive Vice President of Interactive at Fitbit, is enthusiastic about the potential for integrating Alexa voice controls with Fitbit. “As we look at how this integration could evolve in the future, there is an endless world of possibilities from fitness coaching and nutrition tips, to guidance before bedtime to help you get a more restful night’s sleep.”

Another early adapter in the voice-driven health space is Boston Children’s Hospital where their Digital Health Accelerator team created a voice-driven skill called KidsMD. This skill will answer questions about symptoms, dosing, and whether or not to reach out to an HCP.

Jared Hawkins, Director of Informatics at Boston Children’s Innovation and Digital Health Accelerator, comments that “in the future we envision Alexa-enabled devices being a central point for the public to verbally interact with all of the educational content developed at Boston Children’s Hospital.”

Conclusion
The hands-free, instant feedback provided by Amazon’s Alexa, as well as other hands-free systems, shows the potential to dramatically change how we conduct web searches. Dr. Google may still be our “go to” HCP when it comes to DIY healthcare, but there’s a new doctor in town, and Dr. Alexa can’t wait to speak with you!

Alexa, are we in the Matrix?