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March 7, 2017

The WebMD skill for Amazon’s Alexa can answer all your medical questions

by John_A

Why it matters to you

WebMD is bringing its wealth of medical knowledge to a new form factor: Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant.

Alexa, Amazon’s brilliant voice-activated smart assistant, is a capable little companion. It can order a pizza, summon a car, dictate a text message, and flick on your downstairs living room’s smart bulb. But what it couldn’t do until today was tell you whether that throbbing lump on your forearm was something that required medical attention. Fortunately, that changed on Tuesday with the introduction of a WebMD skill that puts the service’s medical knowledge at your fingertips.

For WebMD, the self-coined “leading source of health information” in the U.S., the move from web interface to voice-driven app is a natural progression. “We want to be in the place where we believe computing is going,” 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.”

More: Thanks to Alexa, you can control your home by talking to your smartwatch

The edifying new WebMD app — or “skill,” in Amazon’s lingo — works with Alexa-enabled devices including Amazon’s own Echo, Echo Dot, and Fire TV, and isn’t too different in form and function than the thousands of other Alexa skills in Amazon’s market. It’s enabled by saying, “Alexa, enable WebMD skill,” and you activate it with the phrase, “Alexa, ask WebMD.” It will inform you of a drug’s side effects (“Alexa, ask WebMD to tell me about amoxicillin”), provide a list of treatments for common ailments (“Alexa, ask WebMD how to treat a sore back”), and tell you the basics about diseases (“Alexa, ask WebMD what Lou Gehrig’s disease is”).

If you’ve used WebMD on the web, it’s a trip down memory lane. The Alexa app spouts verbal answers to simple questions about conditions, medical tests, and symptoms. For more complex queries, it tosses the answer in an Alexa app card containing the answer to the question and a URL with additional information. Just like WebMD proper, the Alexa app isn’t perfect — in The Verge’s experience, it had trouble offering treatment advice on headache. And it doesn’t always understand questions the first time — you’ll find yourself repeating, “Alexa, ask WebMD,” more often than you’d like.

More: Could Amazon’s Alexa devices be getting an add-on security camera next?

This Alexa skill is just the start of something bigger. In the future, WebMD hopes to improve the interface and add the ability to ask follow-up questions. “The voice part of it is a crucial investment to where we will be one day,” Greenberg told The Verge. “Our grandkids will make fun of us for ever having used a keyboard.”

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