LIFESTYLE

FYI Alexa gives MD Advice

Amazon’s Alexa already boasts more than 10,000 skills, but has now added medical advice to its repertoire. WebMD announced today that it’s launched its own skill for all Alexa-enabled devices (including the Echo, Echo Dot, and Fire TV), which can answer basic health-related queries. Topics include treatments for common ailments (“Alexa, ask WebMD how to treat a sore throat”), definitions of basic diseases (“Alexa, ask WebMD what diabetes is”), and the side effects of certain drugs (“Alexa, ask WebMD to tell me about amoxicillin”).

WebMD stresses that, like its website, the new Alexa skill is only meant to offer supplementary information, and adds that the software is a work-in-progress.

“We want to be in the place where we believe computing is going,” WebMD’s vice president of mobile products, Ben Greenberg, tells 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.”

We tried the new skill and found that it works as advertised. Basic questions get common sense responses (feeling bloated? Drink some water and go for a walk), and for more complex queries, like asking for drug side-effects, users are given some information and then directed to WebMD’s website via the Alexa app. There were some odd gaps in WebMD’s knowledge, though; including not knowing how to treat a headache, no matter how we phrased the question. And, as ever with voice interfaces, sometimes queries just aren’t understood. It’s also a pain having to start every request with “Alexa, ask WebMD,” but again, that’s par for the course.

There are bigger worries. WebMD boasts that it’s the “leading source of health information” in the US (each month, it says, one-third of America’s online population visits the site or its apps), but the company has been criticized for providing alarmist information, as well as for its ties with pharmaceutical companies. In 2010, for example, the website offered users a quiz to find out more about their mental health. No matter what answers people gave, they were told they were at risk of depression. The quiz itself was sponsored by the drug company Eli Lilly, makers of the antidepressant Cymbalta — which happened to be advertised on the same page. A spokesperson for WebMD would not comment on this particular case, noting that it was “addressed more than seven years ago,” but stressed that the company has “an in-house staff of board-certified physician editors who medically review all of our content” and has won several awards for the quality of the information it provides.

But giving out misleading or incomplete information is a particular worry with voice interfaces in general. Unlike searches on mobile or desktop, there’s no space to provide multiple answers, or news from different sources. With a bot that doles out medical advice, that could mean steering users toward a particular brand of drug by simply not mentioning alternatives.

WebMD is adamant that its advice is impartial and independent. “We have a really, really strong wall between our editorial and promotional organizations,” says Greenberg. “Our content is just never influenced by promotional concerns.” And when asked if the company’s Alexa skill might, in the future, include advertising of the sort that appears on its website, Greenberg replied: “Right now we’re not thinking about monetization at all. It’s just about expanding to a new mode of communication and a new interface.”

At the moment, WebMD’s Alexa skill is well-suited to answer basic questions, and could be genuinely helpful — if users remember to install it in the first place. In the future, says Greenberg, the interface will be improved, and users may be asked follow-up questions to better pin down what might be ailing them. (Medical chatbots that do the same thing are already getting pretty common.) But, says Greenberg, “the voice part of it is a crucial investment to where we will be one day. Our grandkids will make fun of us for ever having used a keyboard.”

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