Alexa will see you now: Technology and your health
Many are used to smartwatches monitoring heart rates, but smart speakers can now detect a breathing pattern that signifies a heart event, opening the door to better treatment. (stock photo)

We can argue all day long about whether Big Tech is just too darn big. Certainly some members of Congress think it is; six bills have been under consideration to, among other things, keep big companies from gobbling up little ones and end monopolistic practices.

But there’s no question that technological advances have saved lives, and not just in hospital settings. A few years ago, there was a story about a father and son who were supposed to meet to go biking. When the father (who was in his 60s) didn’t show up, the son received an alert on his smartwatch that his father had fallen and where he was. Help was summoned and the father recovered from his injuries.

Depending on your comfort level with sharing information with technology platforms, smart speakers, smartwatches and monitors can help you achieve your health and fitness goals.

A lot of us are wearing smartwatches to help us keep track of movement and calories consumed, in addition to the weather, emails and text messages. These watches can be pricey, but there are fitness trackers that won’t break the bank. The Fitbit Inspire, for example, is about $80.

Speaking of companies gobbling up smaller ones, Google just acquired Fitbit, so the Google Assistant (“OK, Google…”) is now embedded in two Fitbit models.

Some ways you can take advantage of smartwatch health features:

• Monitor your breathing. The Apple Smartwatch has a feature that reminds you to breathe for 60 seconds every so often.

• Monitor your heartbeat. This is useful if you’re doing strenuous exercise or yardwork.

• Keep track of how often you move. You may think you’re moving enough, but your smartwatch may beg to differ.

Smartwatches and fitness trackers typically connect to your smartphone through an app. If you’re someone who thrives on positive feedback, the apps will send you congratulatory messages when you’ve achieved a particular fitness goal. A little reinforcement never hurts!

Amazon, which has already changed the way the world shops, eats and plays music, is making huge inroads into health care. According to Kaiser Health News, in 2019, Amazon won permission to use protected patient health records controlled under the U.S. privacy law known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

The company has invited companies that are HIPAA-compliant to partner with it on developing new applications in health care. The potential is astounding.

Smart speakers are designed to hear the sounds around them, so it understands when you say you need milk. Researchers at the University of Washington taught several smart devices to recognize “agonal breathing,” the gasping sound often made when someone is experiencing cardiac arrest. Out-of-hospital cardiac arrest results in about 300,000 deaths a year in North America alone. The devices were able to accurately recognize agonal breathing 97% of the time, with very few false positives.

“It opens possibilities to deliver care at a distance,” Dr. Sandhya Pruthi of the Mayo Clinic told Kaiser. “Think about people living in small towns who aren’t always getting access to care and knowing when to get health care. Could this be an opportunity, if someone had symptoms, to say, ‘It’s time for this to get checked out?’ ”

It’s more than just possibility. In California, a home health care provider created an Alexa skill that “lets elderly or frail residents connect with caregivers, set up reminders about medications, report their weight and blood pressure, and schedule appointments,” according to Kaiser Health News.

Omron, a company that makes blood pressure monitors, has an app that links up with the Google Assistant, allowing users to ask “OK, Google, what’s my blood pressure?” and provide medication reminders.

Technology can also help you monitor the health of a family member who lives far away. In partnership with a home health care provider, a Chicago-area woman set up a camera in her mother’s house in another state so she could make sure she was eating and generally able to take care of herself. Privacy has to be taken into consideration, and you would want to gain your loved one’s permission.

In general, technology can:

• Help you monitor your medications and movements.

• Give you motivation and reinforcement.

• Remind you to set up important health screenings.

• Build your awareness of your health habits.

You’ll be seeing more technologies like these in hospitals, doctor’s offices and in the consumer market. Like everything else in health care, the more you understand it, the better you can decide whether it’s right for you.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( She is offering a free, 30-minute phone consultation by calling (312) 788-2640 to make an appointment.