Mayo Alexa

Mayo Clinic Publishes COVID-19 Alexa Skill Exempted from Amazon Limit

The Mayo Clinic has released a new voice app answering questions about COVID-19 and the current pandemic for Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. The Mayo Clinic Answers on COVID-19 skill is one of the first pandemic-related Alexa skills voice apps published since Amazon deleted non-governmental voice apps related to the novel coronavirus.

Questions and Answers

“It’s all about providing trusted health information with credible sources,” Mayo’s health education and content services medical director Dr. Sandhya Pruthi told Voicebot in an interview. “We are in a position to know what people are asking [about the coronavirus] from patients and nurses, and we used that data in designing the skill.”

The new skill offers information about the virus drawn from both the Mayo Clinic’s own database as well as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Once enabled, people can ask the skill about symptoms and preventative steps to take. The skill also offers a self-assessment designed to help users decide whether they may have been infected and should speak with a doctor. It’s similar, although not identical, to the quiz created by the CDC accessible directly through Alexa. Mayo senior editors Jennifer Warner and Lee Engfer explained that the voice self-assessment was developed concurrently with the one available on the Mayo Clinic’s website, which actually debuted ahead of the CDC’s assessment.

“From a content perspective, we knew we had a lot of information [to share],” Warner said. “People are really interested in just the basics about the disease and how to protect themselves.

Alexa Exemption

After curating the content to include with the voice app, the Mayo team worked with long-time partner Orbita to develop the actual software. Orbita shepherded the Mayo Clinic’s earlier first aid Alexa skill to publication. The difference this time was the extra hoops Mayo had to jump through to get explicit permission from Amazon to add the COVID-19 skill to the Alexa store. Back in March, Amazon removed all of the skills related to the virus and put a stop to new ones. The point was to stop the spread of misinformation and rumors about the disease. Amazon took the problem seriously enough to limit even developers who had published other healthcare-related Alexa skills from releasing new ones about COVID-19.

“[We] worked with Amazon directly to get clearance,” Engfer said.

Myths and misunderstandings are a problem during health crises, especially with a disease this new. The Mayo Clinic skill addresses some of the more pervasive rumor. When asked, the voice assistant explains that washing your hands is more effective than hand sanitizer and that drinking bleach or using bleach-soaked cloths as nose plugs is incredibly dangerous and not a way to treat COVID-19 or prevent infection. Amazon’s concern about misinformation still limits the Mayo Clinic skill to the U.S., however. Amazon won’t publish it in other countries without input from relevant health authorities.

Part of the appeal of building the voice app is its flexibility, Pruthi said. It’s relatively quick and simple to adjust it, whether for other countries or to change answers as the pandemic continues and more is learned about the virus. Voice apps that can bring accurate health information to people right away makes the current health crisis different from previous ones.

“Compare it to [when there were outbreaks of] Ebola or SARS when you had to wait for information or hit a website,” Pruthi said. “Now voice assistants can give you information right when you need it and can respond to the fluidity of the situation.


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