February 21, 2018

Think it’s flu? Now you can ask Alexa


Flu season has hit particularly hard this year. Alexa can now help sort through symptoms.

If you think you have the flu, making decisions about whether to seek care is as easy as asking Alexa. Vanderbilt’s Flu Tool, an online resource that uses a series of questions to help patients determine if they or a family member may have the flu, has now been adapted for use with Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based voice service.

Alexa works with the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Show to provide content through voice interaction — users launch and interact with the device by speaking to it.

Software developers can submit new “skills,” similar in concept to mobile apps, to expand people’s experience with these devices, which are called virtual assistants.

As of December 2017, there were more than 25,000 Alexa skills available.

The Flu Tool was chosen as the first candidate for a Vanderbilt Health Alexa skill because it uses a decision tree based on a series of yes/no questions.

“The goal of the Flu Tool is to give patients a more focused decision for treatment based on symptoms,” said Trent Rosenbloom, M.D., MPH, associate professor of Biomedical Informatics, Medicine and Pediatrics.

“After answering a couple of questions, the tool helps them decide if it’s just a standard case of flu and they should call their provider and go on antiviral medication, or if they need general advice for home care, or if there are red flags that indicate something more serious, like pneumonia.”

Rosenbloom also noted the importance of the new technology in making the use of the Flu Tool as easy as possible.

“Placing the Flu Tool into a virtual assistant like Alexa will make it even easier for people to determine whether they might have flu. Alexa will bring the medical knowledge right to them,” he said.

The Flu Tool skill is the first developed by the Strategic Marketing web team, but it is not expected to be the last, said Jill Austin, chief marketing officer.

“Voice search is one of the most important trends in consumer experience right now. It is predicted that voice search will account for at least half of all online searches by 2020. The Echo Dot was the biggest selling product of all products sold on Amazon during the past holiday season.

“Providing health information through voice is another way we are meeting people’s needs through the channel of their choice.”

To use the Flu Tool on an Alexa-enabled device, launch the interaction by saying “Alexa, open Flu Tool.”

You can also access the skill at echosim.io or use the Reverb app on your phone. Each requires you to log in to your Amazon account. The Flu Tool can also be used as text-based widget at VanderbiltHealth.com/flutool.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that this year’s flu season is particularly hard hitting.

Typical flu symptoms include fever, body aches, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, nausea or vomiting and diarrhea, and the CDC recommends staying away from others for at least 24 hours after the fever is gone (without the use of a fever-reducing medicine).

Walk-in promo

Vanderbilt Health operates a variety of walk-in clinics in Middle Tennessee, including some with Williamson Medical Center, to take care of everything from sprains and sport injuries to flu shots, fevers, coughs and rashes. Search locations and learn more about the conditions treated there.