Alexa will see you now

United Kingdom

In a push towards accessibility, the NHS and Amazon have partnered to stream NHS-verified information to UK homes.  Alexa, Amazon’s voice-assisted technology, is now capable of automatically searching online NHS information to find answers to medical questions.  UK users can ‘ask Alexa’ and receive instant answers to questions about their health and wellbeing without having to search through the abundance of information available online.

The NHS hopes this new development will relieve the strain on human doctors and reduce unnecessary pressure on the emergency services by providing an alternative resource and empowering people to take better control of their health where minor ailments and illnesses are concerned.  Voice search is increasing rapidly and by 2020 half of all internet searches are expected to be made via voice-assisted technology.  The introduction of this new partnership is intended to assist the elderly, disabled, those with difficulty attending health centres and those who struggle with using online resources. 

The announcement of this partnership has, however, not been universally met without concern.  Whilst many view the development positively, highlighting the fact that Alexa has always responded to health queries and now the information provided will be NHS-verified and reliable, as would be expected from a new means of delivery of medical information and the sharing of personally identifiable information, opinion amongst AI and data experts varies.

Information pertaining to health is recognised as a special category of personal data and therefore requires additional care to ensure its adequate protection.  Questions relating to the encryption of, access to, and processing of, health information have all been raised with the partners confirming that multiple layers of authentication will protect the data from UK customers and that the encrypted data will be kept confidentially in the UK.

The medical community has voiced concern about the growing tendency among the public to ‘self-diagnose’ and treat/ignore.  Situational judgements are beyond the ability of currently available technology and differentiation between an isolated symptom, when that symptom is a sign of a minor illness, or when that symptom indicates a more significant illness that needs further investigation or treatment largely requires a doctor’s expertise.  The distinction between the delivery of ‘information’ and symptom sorting, and ‘advice’ is crucial here. 

The NHS is increasingly partnering with private companies to offer access to its services; Babylon Health, Push Doctor and Now GP all allow video appointments with GPs to be made remotely and whilst this is the first of many attempts by the government led NHSX unit to boost the use of digital technology within the health sector talks with other companies such as Microsoft are currently underway.  NHSX is looking at ways of making more NHS services available to all patients through digital technology and this week’s announcement supports the commitment in the NHS Long Term Plan to make more NHS services available digitally.