• Article
  • September 27, 2018

Using Technology to Help Families Access Flu Information

The war on the flu virus is coming to a kitchen counter near you using Alexa, the virtual assistant behind Amazon Echo or other Alexa-enabled speaker devices.

Alexa, how can we use technology to help prevent the flu?

Health care professionals are using modern technology to battle the influenza virus in a variety of ways—from leveraging electronic medical record (EMR) data to generate automatic vaccine reminders to patients, to using artificial intelligence to forecast flu patterns and develop more effective vaccines, to the ongoing development of a universal flu vaccine that could someday eliminate the need for annual injections.

Now, clinicians at Seattle Children's Hospital, along with a team from Boston Children's Hospital, have developed an application that provides timely flu information through Alexa, the virtual assistant voice behind Amazon Echo or other Alexa-enabled speaker devices.

"Previously, if you asked Alexa specific questions about influenza or the flu shot, she didn't have a lot of information, and certainly not a lot of depth or expertise," says Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., M.B.E., general pediatrician and chief of digital innovation at Seattle Children's Hospital. "We built this as a way to provide expert information to parents we'd typically share in a clinical environment—but make it convenient for families and build some trust, learning and understanding around the flu."

Introducing "Flu Doctor"

Swanson introduced the new "Flu Doctor" skill ("skill" is Alexa-speak for an application) recently at the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases' (NFID's) annual Influenza/Pneumococcal News Conference. By enabling the Flu Doctor skill on their Alexa-enabled device, users gain access to a wealth of flu-related information curated by Seattle Children's and Boston Children's.

Swanson says it's important patients regard Flu Doctor as a trusted source of information, so they developed the content in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and Washington State Department of Health. "Everything we wrote for the Alexa skill was reviewed and approved by these agencies," Swanson says. "My ultimate goal is always to build trust in the science and safety of vaccines."

Additionally, Swanson says Flu Doctor will be updated regularly with new information and trend data as the flu season progresses.

Keys to flu prevention—vaccination is imperative

It's too early to forecast if the upcoming flu season will be as severe as 2017-18, when 180 flu-related pediatric deaths were reported to the CDC. It's estimated that 80 percent of those deaths occurred in children who were not vaccinated against the flu, further underscoring the importance of annual vaccinations for everyone 6 months of age and older.

Other flu prevention keys, according to the CDC:

  • The flu vaccine should be given every year before flu activity begins in your community—the CDC recommends getting vaccinated by the end of October
  • Vaccination of high-risk persons, including pregnant women and children younger than 5 years old, is important to decrease their risk of severe flu illness
  • Infants younger than 6 months are at high risk of serious flu illness, but are too young to be vaccinated, so people who live with or care for these infants should be vaccinated
  • Take everyday preventive actions to stop the spread of germs

The personalized future of Flu Doctor

For Swanson and her team, the primary goal for this flu season is to help make sure kids are vaccinated. And she has high hopes for what the Flu Doctor skill can bring to future flu seasons.

"Our longer-term vision … as smart speakers become more personalized—and they will … is to cater information to families by understanding who they are and then educate them in real time," Swanson says. "This would help us explain to patients and families why they need vaccinations and why it's important—things we generally don't have time to do in a regular pediatric wellness visit."

The Flu Doctor team is looking for your feedback. Enable the Flu Doctor skill on your Alexa-enabled device and let them know what you think! Please send all comments and suggestions to digitalhealth@seattlechildrens.org.