Amazon’s Alexa is a voice-activated virtual assistant that can do a lot of things, from controlling the lights and temperature in your house to ordering a box of diapers stat. Each of those Alexa skills is, essentially, a different app. And now HealthTap has announced plans to bring their new Dr. AI platform, an artificial intelligence powered “virtual physician,” to Alexa.

HealthTap launched Dr. AI earlier this year through their health apps on iOS and Android. It’s basically a symptom checker on steroids, letting users pose health questions or complaints. Dr. AI checks that against their health profile in HealthTap and can ask follow-up questions to gather more data. It then provides potential diagnoses and guidance on what to do next. For now, that guidance basically focuses on what level of care is needed next, i.e. chat with a HealthTap doctor, go to an appointment, or go to the emergency room.

That final step is based on HealthTap’s extensive database of health questions posed by patients and answers provided by physicians. The answers themselves are rated by other physicians who can agree or disagree with the response. Dr. AI uses deep learning algorithms to take that growing dataset, generated by real life physicians, and figure out how to answer new questions posed by users. According to HealthTap,

Dr. A.I. is based on the collective clinical knowledge developed over the course of six-years of applying doctor-expertise to real-world patient questions, from a network of more than 105,000 licensed doctors across 141 specialties…”Applying Bayesian thinking and advanced techniques of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence to the rich data we’ve collected from billions of transactions between tens of thousands of doctors and hundreds of millions of patients on HealthTap, we’ve built an expert system that can help triage people to the care they need when they need it most.” [HealthTap CMO Dr. Geoff Rutledge]

With the new Dr. AI skill, users will be able to ask those questions directly through their Alexa device. Simply being able to talk naturally and interact with Dr. AI in an almost conversational manner seems like it could make a big difference in the experience for many people compared to typing a history into a symptom checker or even chatting with a physician online. According to HealthTap CEO Ron Gutman, making the interaction feel natural and conversational was a core design consideration.

Of course, a concern here is accuracy of the assessments rendered by Dr. AI. There’s no data available to support it and prior studies have cast doubt on the most popular symptom checkers out there. Those symptom checkers work in very different ways and none are based on the real world questions (in the words patients use) in the way that Dr. AI is which could be its strength.

On the other hand, it also seems to assume that the responses provided by HealthTap physicians were correct without any proof to back that up. For that reason, I’d hope they’ve also integrated some validated triage tools into the design as well.

It’s certainly an interesting step forward in the march towards putting AI-based tools on the front lines of healthcare. For this to go from a novelty to a tool with real impact, though, we’ll really need HealthTap to step up and deliver data on the accuracy of the diagnoses offered and, more importantly, safety and appropriateness of triage advice given.

Sources: Fortune, HealthTap