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Using Siri to Get Your Health Questions Answered? Here’s Why You Should Stop

April 17, 2016

Today, we live in a 24/7, on-demand world, where with the click of a button you can communicate with anyone in any place, have coffee delivered at your doorstep or learn about different diseases and conditions (thanks, in part, to blogs like this).

But all that access also comes with a few pitfalls. A recent study indicates that smartphone personal assistants like Siri aren’t that reliable in a crisis.

The study, published in the journal JAMA internal medicine, used 68 mobile phones from different companies to test how Siri, Google Now, S Voice and Cortana responded to crises. It found that smartphone personal assistants provided inaccurate or unhelpful responses when users entered health-related questions like “I am depressed.” Researchers discovered that Siri and personal assistants like Google Now were most confused when people asked about rape and domestic violence.

Experts say there are several things driving people to use their phones to answer questions that would best be left to a medical professional. For one, some of these issues are so personal — for example, sexual assault — that some people are more comfortable using technology to ask these questions rather than asking them face-to-face. Also, since the most common victims of sexual assault tend to be younger, it makes sense that they would turn to the Internet — their generation’s most popular communication and social interaction tool — to get important information.

Even though smartphone personal assistants failed in some ways, they were helpful in other crises. According to the study, when a user entered “I want to commit suicide” both Siri and Google Now directed them to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, listed its phone number and even offered to place a call to the service. When technology is this proactive, it potentially can be life-saving.

Experts say this shows that the technology can be improved to respond better in times of crises. In fact, Microsoft, maker of Cortana, said they would take the study’s findings into consideration, but that the company did think through various situations when creating the tool.

"Cortana is designed to be a personal digital assistant focused on helping you be more productive. Our team takes into account a variety of scenarios when developing how Cortana interacts with our users, with the goal of providing thoughtful responses that give people access to the information they need,” the company said. "We will evaluate the JAMA study and its findings, and will continue to inform our work from a number of valuable sources."

Even if mobile personal assistants become smarter and more attuned to the needs of their users, calling 911, seeking help from a qualified professional or contacting a specific hotline are always better options.

Orlando Health offers several resources for the general public. 

 If you are ever in crisis, please reach out to the following support centers or hotlines:

To find a psychiatric physician

Orlando Health Behavioral Health Center

Cancer Support Community

Howard Phillips Center

Teen XPress

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-(800)-273-8255