Alexa has an answer to (almost) everything, but when Amazon announced earlier this year that its digital voice assistant can now ask health-related queries, I was more than a little skeptical.
Make no mistake, Alexa is a smart and powerful digital sage – that’s half the reason Amazon Echo devices are among the best smart home devices we’ve tested (the other half is sound quality and device performance). But when it comes to my health, I’m used to relying on living, breathing doctors, and I bet you are too.
Before I set Alexa up against a range of disorders, both mine and others, I had some serious questions: Could an AI, even one strictly trained in the nuances of human speech, really analyze my health symptoms and return a list of possible causes? Would the answers be thorough, accurate and relevant? Would the interactions be meaningful?
After testing the new feature several times over the past month, I can answer these questions and more with a resounding (if a little amazed), “Yes.”
What the new Alexa Symptom Checker is (and is not)
The idea of developing a general symptom control function was originally triggered by Alexa’s Covid-19 symptom control, an earlier, more targeted health-related release. This debuted in March 2020 and worked in a similar way of conversation.
Basically, the new symptom control feature allows you to forward a list of any medical symptoms you have experienced to Alexa, who will then ask follow-up questions before answering with a list of 10 possible conditions that may be causing your symptoms.
To begin the interaction with symptom control, say “Alexa, check my symptoms.” From there, Alexa will ask a series of yes-or-no questions to help narrow down what underlying medical conditions may be related.
You can start this conversation on any Amazon Echo, including speaker devices like the Echo and Echo Dot, but for the best experience you will want to use an Alexa device with an attached monitor such as an Echo Show smart screen, Amazon Fire Tablet or Fire TV. Echo Show adds a visual element to help you and Alexa figure out potential medical conditions – for example, a graphical pain scale with line-drawn faces from smiley to bangs can help you determine a number when Alexa asks how much something hurts between zero and 10.
Amazon makes it clear that these interactions are “for educational purposes only” and that Alexa’s answers do not constitute medical advice. Think of it less like consulting a real doctor and more like doing a web search or gathering information from sites like WebMD or Healthline.
“The advances we’re made in conversational voice technology have opened the door for people to access information in new ways, and that’s what drove the development of Alexa’s symptom control,” says Amazon Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Debra Chrapaty, who oversees Amazon Alexa, via email. “It’s built so you can just tell Alexa the symptoms you’re feeling, answer yes-or-no questions and learn about the possible causes – all without having to fill out forms.”
How thorough is the Alexa Symptom Checker?
According to Amazon, Alexa symptom checkers currently support more than 70 different types of common symptoms, including fever, rash, abdominal pain, runny nose and headache – and they plan to add more symptoms over time.
To generate the list of 10 possible causes of your symptoms, Amazon says that Alexa refers to clinical care guidelines provided by Amazon Care, a medical group that helps clients with a wide range of acute and primary care services. These possible causes are selected from a supported set of thousands of conditions, such as a common cold, sore throat or an upper respiratory tract infection.
To test the thoroughness of the feature, I started by pretending I was suffering from a few simple health conditions, such as the flu, the common cold, and Covid-19 (of course). Alexa returned the state I was fishing for within the top three of these 10 answers 100% of the time, and got it listed in number one almost every time.
Then I moved on to more complex relationships, referring to either my own personal experience or someone close to me. Diverticulitis, pneumonia and asthma were three I tested and Alexa managed it by answering with each of them and a few more, all within the top three, even though it was only in the case of asthma that was listed first.
Only when I started testing for rare or unusual health problems did Alexa appear – prolapsed mitral valve (a heart condition), Shwachman-Diamond Syndrome (a genetic disorder) and kidney cell carcinoma (kidney cancer) did not appear on the list of possible conditions, although to be fair All three of these diagnoses require diagnostic tests that are not among the list of symptoms Alexa can subtract.
What comes next?
Alexa’s new symptom control feature can also be connected directly to Teladoc on Alexa, another new health-related service that debuted on February 28 and allows you to connect with a genuine, live healthcare provider. Currently, the service only offers audio visits, but Amazon says video visits will be available soon. Towards the end of the symptom checking experience, Alexa tells you that you can say, “I want to talk to a doctor,” to connect to the Teladoc call center.
Teladoc starts at $ 75 without insurance and varies – possibly even for free – for those with a particular insurance policy.
There are plenty of other ways Amazon is set up to bridge the gap between Alexa’s health features and any medical services or information you may seek as a result. In addition to telesealth consultations with human clinicians and Amazon’s online pharmacy (you can check online to see if it delivers to your address), Alexa is ready to help you find a nearby Covid-19 vaccine or booster, set a reminder to take your medication or find the phone number of a nearby provider.
How Amazon handles your private data
To address concerns about private data, Amazon is quick to point out that symptom control is not an integral feature of Alexa – you do not need to use it when purchasing an Amazon Echo. Aside from not using it at all, you can also skip individual questions if you do not feel comfortable answering them, but it is unclear how this may affect Alexa’s accuracy when answering.
Just like every time you interact with Alexa, you can view, hear and delete your voice recordings through the Alexa Privacy Settings or in the Alexa app. You can also say to an Amazon Echo speaker or monitor, “Alexa, delete what I just said,” or “Alexa, delete everything I said today.”
Healthcare is a pervasive problem in the United States, where a large percentage of the population is either uninsured or underinsured, so it worries me that Amazon’s disclaimer that the Alexa Symptom Checker is for “educational purposes” only can be ignored by those who suffer from it. medical problems but can not afford professional care.
However, it is reassuring that as much as symptom control does not replace the need to seek medical attention, especially in an emergency, at least the information it provides is retrieved from Amazon Care – a bona fide, professional health service. Perhaps because of that, Alexa’s responses seem to be incredibly accurate when identifying everyone except the most complex health conditions.
Smart speakers have already justified their place in our homes by being useful – so we can issue voice commands to play music, set timers and alarms, retrieve the weather forecast and check the time in a comfortable and convenient way. Devices like Amazon Echo and Echo Show have also proven to be beneficial when we use them to connect via video calls with distant relatives, prepare healthy recipes or play educational programming for our kids.
It therefore seems only natural that the functions and functions of these devices will eventually evolve to handle more serious tasks such as our health issues and needs. The Alexa Symptom Checker seems to be a bold step in the direction of adding real value to both the Amazon Echo devices you already own and the ones you might be buying along the way.