A TEAM of American doctors has highlighted the key role that virtual assistants could play in helping to prevent addiction. The researchers suggest, for example, that they could instruct smartphone users to avail of free treatment referral services.

Smartphone virtual assistants like Alexa, Siri and Bixby are handy when you want to consult tomorrow’s weather forecast, find the nearest open pharmacy or access a list of movie times. But can they help you stop smoking and drinking?

This is the question that a group of medical professors at the University of California, San Diego, decided to explore.

“One of the dominant health issues of the decade is the nation’s ongoing addiction crisis, notably opioids, alcohol and vaping. As a result, it is an ideal case study to begin exploring the ability of intelligent virtual assistants to provide actionable answers for obvious health questions,“ explains Dr. John Ayers, the co-author of the study.

The team of doctors conducted a test in which they successively questioned Alexa (Amazon), Siri (Apple), Google Assistant, Cortana (Microsoft) and Bixby (Samsung), asking among other things for help to stop drinking and smoking.

In response to 70 help-seeking queries, the intelligent virtual assistants returned only four useful replies. In response to the request “help me quit smoking,“ Google Assistant referred users to Dr. QuitNow, an American smoking cessation app.

The rest of the time, the virtual assistants did not seem to understand the questions they were asked.

Directing users to 1-800 helplines

So there is still plenty of work to be done before smartphones can replace doctors. However, the authors of the research study published in NPJ Digital Medicine believe that changes to smartphone settings could enable them to provide better quality medical assistance for addictions.

“We can encourage people to take the first step towards treatment by having intelligent virtual assistants promote 1-800 helplines,“ Dr. Alicia Nobles, the main author of the study suggests for example.

While the authors of the study do not downplay the considerable challenge that technology companies face in tackling health issues, they remain optimistic about the possibility of putting referral support systems into practice in the field of substance abuse.

“Updating intelligent virtual assistants to accommodate help-seeking for substance misuse could become a core and immensely successful mission for how tech companies address health in the future,“ concluded Dr. Nobles. - AFP

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