Pharmacist vs Alexa

Pharmacist vs Alexa

I have been dabbling with the idea of whether Alexa, or any other of the new voice devices, is going to replace the Pharmacist or not. And I have found that, in theory, they can. But will they be able to pull it off?

As a Pharmacist working in a community pharmacy, people ask me lot of very different questions…

“Where’s the Tylenol?”

“How do I treat a burn?”

“My mom, Mrs. Smith, has diabetes, history of a stroke, is allergic to penicillin, and she’s congested, what can I give her?” 

As you can see, some questions can be simple, but some can be fairly complex and specific. So, is this something Alexa could handle? Well, it depends. 

Wait…Who is Alexa?

If you know what Alexa is, please proceed to the next section. If you don’t, I’ll briefly try to explain as best as I can, but if you want more details please click here

Amazon has created a series of devices, like the EchoEcho Dot, and Echo Show, that can provide information or entertainment just by responding to voice commands like “Alexa, what’s the weather like today?” Very similar to using Siri on the iPhone (sorry Android lovers). Alexa already has built in capabilities and functions, but there’s also a way to add voice apps, which Amazon calls “skills,” that you can enable on your device. Enabling a skill is synonymous to downloading an app from the app store on your smartphone. Google and Microsoft have similar competing voice devices, but Alexa and its’ skills are what we’ll discuss as the device that can replace the Pharmacist or not. 

Relationship Status: It’s Complicated 

In building my first Alexa Skill, Phred Bot, a voice app to help healthcare professionals learn the top 200 most commonly prescribed drugs, I learned the basics of voice design and tasted what the future of voice interactions may be like. I quickly realized that yes, we can program Alexa to answer simple questions and maybe even slightly tougher ones. But for the more complex questions, like the example above about Mrs. Smith, it is possible to create a skill to handle a question this complicated…but unlikely.

Mission Impossible

The way these skills are programmed is simple, in terms of logic that is, the coding could get extremely difficult. You’d program Alexa to recognize questions asked by users such as, “how do I treat a burn,” and then program the skill to have Alexa respond with a specific answer. Simple enough, right? Well, imagine the amount of questions that a Pharmacist could be asked. That’s a lot of questions to program, and that’s assuming there’s no need to ask any follow up or clarification questions to the user. Therefore, due to the complex nature of these types of interactions, my fellow Pharmacists, you can take a breather. Alexa won’t be replacing us anytime soon. In addition, there is a concern about private health information being transmitted through these devices and skills which can be a HIPAA violation if used incorrectly. Though, I’m confident Amazon is already working on ensuring HIPAA compliance to allow for healthcare to move quickly onto the platform.

Being a Pharmacist is so much more than just having information. It’s why Google or the entire internet as a whole hasn’t replaced us yet. Not only do we have to make a lot of decisions that require analysis, but we also need to have an ability to have an influence on the behavior of our patients. We can give all the right advice to a patient, but a lot of times convincing the patient that we know what’s best for their situation, and not their cousin Sally’s recommendation, is sometimes half the battle. So, the easy stuff we could outsource to these new voice devices. But the hard questions? Let’s leave that up to the humans, Alexa.

I am not blind to the fact that technology is advancing to where our clinical knowledge may be replicated by AI one day, so there will come a time where this will be a real concern for Pharmacists. However, I’m confident that by then we’ll have innovated enough to still be relevant and prove the intangible value that pharmacists can bring to the healthcare team. 

Getting Started

Healthcare providers should get serious about the emerging voice space and really start using the technology. We need to start viewing devices like Amazon’s Echo as more of a tool and less of a threat. If you haven’t yet, you should start thinking about getting a device and start familiarizing yourself with how they work. Or, at a bare minimum, start watching YouTube videos and get up to speed on where society is moving towards with voice applications. 

Any Ideas?

I hope to build a skill that’ll function along the lines of, “hey Alexa, ask the Pharmacist how to treat allergies.” And my recommended treatment would then be spoken to the user by Alexa. It’ll be intended to replicate a simple Google search for the same question. But, if that consumer has already tried two or three different things to treat allergies, things could get tricky. Ideally, there would be a function to identify this situation and get the user connected to a Pharmacist to help provide a better solution. So, if any developers are interested, reach out to me. I would love to get this built sooner than later. What ideas do you have?

Thanks for reading!

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  • Deborah Hobbins

    Pharmacists and voice assistants can work together. This deadly combination will provide better results, we should't fear robots

  • Joe Green

    Technology has gone very far, I should watch more videos and read a couple of books to educate myself about the impending impact of robots in our society

  • Ronald Harris

    I prefer to speak to a pharmacist

  • Stan Broniszewski

    This is mind-blowing, thanks for sharing your thoughts

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Richard Waithe, PharmD

Healthcare Expert

Dr. Richard is the Founder of MedVize, a personal medication management company and is the host of Rx Radio, a podcast dedicated the pharmacy profession. He is a pharmacist who is committed to helping individuals better manage their health and medications. He is passionate about advancing the profession of pharmacy with a focus on machine learning and blockchain technologies. His mission is to provide people with understandable knowledge to best manage their health while ensuring their medications are convenient, affordable, safe, and effective. Dr. Richard holds a Doctorate of Pharmacy from the University of Florida, and fun fact, although living in sunny Miami, Florida, he loves snowboarding. 

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