Siri: iPhone's new personal health assistant?

By Brian Dolan
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Brian Dolan, Editor, MobiHealthNewsWhen Apple announced its newest iPhone, the 4S, its most notable new feature was Siri, a voice-enabled virtual assistant. Apple acquired the company that created Siri in April 2010, just a few months after the startup's app went live in the AppStore. Apple further refined Siri through a partnership with Nuance, a speech recognition company that should be familiar to those in healthcare. Dictation, transcription, and -- more recently -- speech recognition services, have long been staples of the practice of medicine.

Based on our own in-house testing here at MobiHealthNews, Siri in its current form could be helpful to both patients and healthcare providers alike. After asking Siri a number of questions, we were surprised how she answered some and that she was able to answer others.

We are not alone in thinking that Siri could be helpful to the health-conscious. The promo video that Apple put together for its new personal assistant begins with a runner using Siri to check his messages while mid-stride. The video ends with a visually impaired user who is able to use Siri via voice commands alone to send and receive messages.

Siri's current functionality is limited to a handful of apps:

"Siri on iPhone 4S lets you use your voice to send messages, schedule meetings, place phone calls, and more," Apple writes on its corporate site. "Ask Siri to do things just by talking the way you talk. Siri understands what you say, knows what you mean, and even talks back. Siri is so easy to use and does so much, you’ll keep finding more and more ways to use it."

The limited menu that Siri accommodates today reminds me of the limited native apps that Apple launched with its first iPhone. At the time there was no AppStore. No third party native apps. The new smartphone offered just a hint of what was to come.

Prediction: Siri will come out of "beta" once Apple is ready to share its API with developers. I think this will happen within a year's time. Voice-enabled commands for health apps could make them easy enough for almost anyone to use.

In the mean time, be sure to check out how Siri responded to the half dozen questions and commands MobiHealthNews sent its way. We think there may be a few health apps and mobile health services that might be in trouble if Siri catches on. Reminders for medication? Check. Directions to the closest emergency room? Check.

Read on for a number of health-related questions our assistant editor Chris Gullo asked of Siri. Who knew she could look up billing codes for medical procedures?

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"Where can I find an emergency room?"

ER

When asked to find an emergency room, Siri finds the nearest hospitals using the iPhone's GPS. Siri doesn't appear to display hospitals based solely on proximity, however. In the screen grab above, it's clear that the third result is the closest. Users can then access directions and the hospital's phone number using the app.