According to a new NHS initiative, Amazon’s Alexa will now give health advice to patients in the UK. The sorts of questions answered range from how to treat a migraine to what are the symptoms of ‘flu or chickenpox.
“We want to empower every patient to take better control of their healthcare and 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 (General Practitioners) and pharmacists,” said Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, in a press release.
Information freely offered
The content available to Alexa isn’t new. She just has access to all health information already presented to the public by the NHS. The NHS freely offers this information and have collaborated with Amazon to ensure that Alexa is giving the correct advice.
14% of UK households now have voice-activated speakers and it is predicted that by 2020 50% of google searches will be done by voice. It is hoped that voice activated applications will give access to information to people – such as the blind – who would previously have had trouble gaining it.
NHS not selling anything
The NHS and partners anticipate some criticism, which they seek to address in an online FAQ published in October. The author is NHS’ Head of Engagement, Eva Lake. For instance, in answer to possible fears around Amazon’s use of data, Lake writes:
“We have worked with the Amazon team to ensure that we can be totally confident that Amazon is not sharing any of this information with third parties. Amazon has been very clear that it is not selling products or making product recommendations based on this health information, nor is it building a health profile on customers. All information is treated with high confidentiality…”
She also addresses the possibility that the NHS is becoming steadily dehumanised, writing:
“Alexa should absolutely not be thought of like a doctor, nurse or any health practitioner, despite some of the media coverage. We are only offering information from the NHS website, not attempting to give personalised health advice or triage.
We want to get relevant and effective information to people. What are the symptoms of chickenpox? How do you relieve a migraine? What can you do about flu? I do hope it saves NHS resource, helping people know when they can see a pharmacist, for example. But I do not see it as replacing that human connection in any way…”
She goes on to specify that, in her opinion, Alexa will not be giving advice as such, but will give suggestions as to possible courses of action that people can take, where appropriate.
The NHS already has an advice hotline, 111, which patients can use to speak to a human advisor. Perhaps it is hoped that Alexa can weed out some of the more trivial questions asked to help lighten the burden on an already popular service.
With 1.7 million employees, the NHS is the biggest employer of humans in Europe. Surely there is also space for digital assistants within this fold.