Seeking health advice using Voice Assistant apps

Patients are resorting to artificial intelligence to seek medical advice and it could be affecting their health, writes Rebecca Borg

Speech recognition software has matured substantially since its emergence in the 1950s. What started as an efficient way to dial numbers quickly developed into digital voice assistants (VAs) that enabled technology to be of service in both our virtual and physical lives. According to Statista, globally, two in five individuals source their information online through VAs, and a growing number are using this technology to seek health-related advice.

“The in­ternet provides convenience, anonymity and privacy. Some individuals tend to conceal their symptoms and are often unwilling to seek help due to barriers like stigma and shame,” says Dr Kevin Yap, a Senior Lecturer in Public Health (Digital Health) at La Trobe University. “The internet can be used by these patients to seek information regarding their conditions, and voice assistant apps can provide the interface.”

Focusing on patients with eating disorders and co-existing depression, Dr Yap, in collaboration with researchers Meryl Koh, Qihuang Xie and Lilian Wong from the Department of Pharmacy, Faculty of Science at the National University of Singapore, analysed how Cortana, Google Assistant, Samsung Bixby and Apple Siri were used to acquire health information online in their paper, Quality assessment of digital voice assistants on information provided in eating disorders and coexisting depression.

“Various studies have been conducted on the quality of information provided by VAs on other health-related topics such as vaccines, smoking cessation and sexual health advice,” Dr Yap says. “However, studies on their abilities to provide quality information regarding eating disorders and coexisting depression are limited.”

Dr Yap’s study indicates that patients use VAs to seek information for symptoms of eating disorders and depression, diagnosis and treatment plans. But while such information can be accessed conveniently at the touch of a button and a few words, Dr Yap is concerned about the reliability of search results as new literature suggests the accuracy of VA technology is deteriorating. Additionally, Dr Yap questions what serious health risks these patients may endure as a result.

“Relevant and comprehensive information is important to ensure patients’ needs are met, while accurate and reliable information will ensure that patients are not misinformed,” says Dr Yap. “Furthermore, healthcare professionals should educate patients on their medical conditions, so that they can use the information that they obtain from VAs to supplement their knowledge.”

Dr Yap is commencing a new project where he will evaluate the quality of information regarding COVID-19 vaccines on various social media platforms. Prior to this, he also published a quality evaluation study on VAs in regard to supplying information relating to the pandemic.

“With the infodemic resulting from COVID-19, there is a need to determine the quality of online COVID-19 information provided by VAs and on social media platforms.”