Amazon’s Alexa can now answer more questions about prescription drugs

Alexa can now answer questions about medication and other health care concerns via voice, thanks to a collaboration between Amazon and drug and medical knowledge provider First Databank (FDB). Content in both English and Spanish allows Alexa users to ask about drug interactions, side effects, precautions, and the drug’s class (all of which FDB says will be updated on a regular basis), complementing the health information sources Alexa already draws from, including the Mayo Clinic and WebMD.

“People lead busy lives, and voice provides a simple way to get helpful information about medications, including side effects and drug interactions, for themselves and the people they care for. And this information will complement advice from their medical and pharmacy teams,” said FDB president Bob Katter. “Ultimately, we believe that more informed consumers will lead to improved medication adherence, the reduction of adverse drug events, and better patient outcomes.”

Here’s a sampling of the questions Alexa can now answer:

  • Alexa, what type of drug is Ibuprofen?
  • Alexa, what are the side effects of Sertraline?
  • Alexa, is Advil safe for pregnant women?
  • Alexa, what’s the difference between Tylenol and Advil?

FDB — which was founded in 1977 and whose customers are chiefly information system developers in medication- and medical device-related subfields — says the data available through Alexa-enabled devices has been audited by clinicians, based on reviews of content from FDB’s drug information monographs. In an email to VentureBeat, an Amazon spokesperson characterized FDB as simply one of the hundreds of data sources Amazon uses to inform Alexa’s knowledge.

Amazon’s partnership with FDB follows its work with the U.K.’s National Health Service to make NHS-verified health information searchable by voice on Alexa, allowing U.K.-based users to ask questions and receive answers vetted by NHS health professionals and currently available on the NHS website. In a related development, late last year Amazon teamed up with pharmaceutical automation company Omnicell and grocery chain Giant Eagle to refill prescriptions and remind people to take their medication via Alexa.

Beyond its focus on health care, Amazon has made an effort to supply Alexa with new data sources, following analyses showing it lags behind other assistants in its question-answering abilities. In an experiment conducted by Loup Ventures last August, Google Assistant was able to answer 92.9% of 800 local, commerce, navigation, and general information questions correctly versus Apple’s Siri at 83.1% and Alexa at 79.8%. (Alexa, notably, showed an improvement of 18.4 percentage points from 2018.)

In summer 2018, Amazon began sourcing hours of operation, descriptions, and addresses from Yext, a digital knowledge management platform that counts Taco Bell, Arby’s, Marriott, and Rite Aid among its clients. Shortly afterward, the company teamed up with Wolfram Research to integrate computational knowledge engine Wolfram Alpha with Alexa to improve the assistant’s answers to math- and science-related questions. And last September Amazon launched its controversial Alexa Answers, a platform that allows people to submit answers that are distributed to the millions of Alexa users around the world.

December 2019 saw the launch of Alexa Knowledge Skills, a new skill type for the Alexa platform that allows employees and customers to ask questions about an organization’s data without invoking a skill name. Knowledge Skills enable folks to ask Alexa about different types of data, including (but not limited to) organization charts, building information, events, FAQs, glossaries, product catalogs, and more.

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