Amazon’s Alexa is all set to gain medical smarts in the UK, thanks to a partnership with the National Health Service (NHS).
The healthcare service said it’s teaming up with Amazon’s voice assistant to help answer medical queries with advice from the service’s official website.
From this week, UK users who ask Alexa health-related questions — “Alexa, what are the symptoms of flu?” — will be provided with answers vetted by NHS health professionals.
The UK’s Department of Health (DoH) said the move will reduce the pressure on NHS professionals in the country, giving users an easy way to access authoritative medical advice.
The NHS also said it’s up for similar collaboration with other tech companies.
With voice-search technology on the rise, the DOH’s decision will likely benefit elderly people and those with visual impairments, who may otherwise struggle to look up such such information on devices with screens.
Amazon currently looks up sources like Mayo Clinic and WebMD for answers related to medical queries, but adding trustworthy sources is the right way to get the right answers.
I very much favour the use of IT in health but….
How is the data encrypted?
Who has access to the data?
Where is the data stored?
Will the data be used for marketing?
Will the data be sold?
What happens if a serious diagnosis is possible from the patients query? https://t.co/AeVQFBvSWP
— Dr David Wrigley (@DavidGWrigley) July 10, 2019
But it also goes without saying that patients with complex healthcare needs shouldn’t fully rely on Alexa as their only source of advice, not to mention raising questions about privacy and data security.
“Amazon is a company with a worrying track record when it comes to the way they handle their users’ data,” said Privacy International. “Our medical information is often the most sensitive data there is about us and a lot can be inferred from the questions we ask and the searches we make when we have health concerns.”
The retail giant, however, noted that personal information will be kept confidential, and not shared with third parties, used to sell products or to build a health profile.
Given that Alexa already responds to health queries from users, some of the concerns may be overblown. But it will be interesting to see how this debate plays out.
Get the TNW newsletter
Get the most important tech news in your inbox each week.