The BBC recently reported that individuals will now be able to access expert health advice through Amazon Alexa devices, under a partnership with the NHS.
Under the partnership, Amazon’s algorithm uses information from the NHS website to provide answers to questions such as, “How do I treat a migraine?” and, “What are the symptoms of chickenpox?”
The government hopes that this plan will reduce the demand on the NHS and it is thought that further talks are underway with other companies, such as Microsoft, to set up similar arrangements.
A release the on Gov.UK website states that the technology will help patients, especially the elderly, blind and those who cannot access the internet through traditional means, to get professional, NHS-verified health information in seconds, through simple voice commands.
Secretary of state for health and social care, Matt Hancock, said that the aim is to “empower every patient to take better control of their healthcare,” and that “technology like this is a great example of how people can access reliable, world-leading NHS advice from the comfort of their home, reducing the pressure on our hardworking GPs and pharmacists.”
He continued, “Through the NHS Long Term Plan, we want to embrace the advances in technology to build a health and care system that is fit for the future and NHSX will drive this revolution to bring the benefits to every patient, clinician and carer.”
NHSX is a unit set up to boost the use of digital technologies in the health service. Its Chief Executive, Matthew Gould, said:
“The public need to be able to get reliable information about their health easily and in ways they actually use. By working closely with Amazon and other tech companies, big and small, we can ensure that the millions of users looking for health information every day can get simple, validated advice at the touch of a button or voice command.
Part of our mission at NHSX is to give citizens the tools to access services and information directly, and partnerships such as this are an important part of achieving this.”
While this plan clearly has benefits, several concerns have been raised. The makers of the device are not intending for it to be able to give a diagnosis. However, how do the public know the difference? Can a device really replace a GP? Some have asked whether the NHS – Alexa partnership will allow Amazon to gather yet more data on how patients raise medical concerns.
One major issue with health information technologies is that they are not regulated; people with serious health concerns turning to them for advice is inadvisable. This plan is still in its early stages, with no evidence of the benefit. It is important that patients are not prevented from seeking proper medical advice which could have damaging consequences and put even more pressure on an already strained NHS.
And if things did go wrong, who would ultimately be responsible for this and the safety of patients?