UK users are able to receive expert health advice via Amazon Alexa, following a never-done-before partnership with the NHS.

Alexa: Your new GP?

You may be asking yourself what is Amazon Alexa? And why is the NHS-Amazon partnership so news-worthy…

Amazon’ Alexa service is a market leading voice-assisted technology, which is performed on the Echo device, also designed by Amazon. The partnership is revolutionary for bringing the NHS in to the 21st century. Find out why…

NHS-Amazon partnership details:

By now the voice-assisted technology, Alexa, will be automatically searching the NHS website when users ask for health-related advice. – The aim to reduce strain on the NHS.

Previously the device served health information to consumers based on a variety of popular responses; the new NHS-Amazon partnership will weed out disinformation from unverified sources to reliably assist users with their health queries.

The partnership was first announced in 2018, with talks now being held with other companies, such as Microsoft, to arrange similar collaborations. Our healthcare system is not the only organisation wanting to integrate with Amazon’s Alexa tool. In October 2018, the charity Breast Cancer Care announced its virtual tool on the voice-assisted device, which shares information on the signs and symptoms of breast cancer.

The NHS are looking ahead “to build a health and care system that is fit for the future”[1]… Voice search is on the rise, by 2020 it is estimated half of all searches will be made through voice-assisted technology. Voice activated tech is frequently being recognised as beneficial support to vulnerable patients, such as the elderly and the visually impaired, who may have trouble accessing the internet through traditional means.

The new algorithm-based service is designed by Amazon’ tech-experts. The answer engine utilises information from the NHS website in order to produce answers on user queries such as, “How do I treat a migraine?” and “What are the symptoms of chickenpox?”

In the NHS’ press release statement discussing the NHS-Amazon deal, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, commented the partnership would “[reduce] the pressure on our hardworking GPs and pharmacists”[2]. He added, “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”[3]. Comments advocating that the collaboration utilising amazon echo and NHS information increases patient choice.

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'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.'

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

'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.'

Matthew Gould, Chief Executive of NHSX

Conflictions over NHS-Amazon partnership:

The Amazon-NHS contract announcement has drawn criticism among artificial intelligence experts, data ethicists and clinicians over the concern of data privacy and patient care. The concerns follow after Amazon’s mistaken recordings of Alexa users.

Namely the civil liberty group Big Brother Watch has voiced their concerns over the Amazon NHS data, with the Director Silkie Carlo saying: “Any public money spent on this awful plan rather than frontline services would be a breathtaking waste.” Adding further comment to the matter, “Healthcare is made inaccessible when trust and privacy is stripped away, and that’s what this terrible plan would do.” Exclaiming “It’s a data protection disaster waiting to happen.”!

  • Mathana Stender, Berlin-based tech expert said, “The sensitive data holdings of a national healthcare provider like the NHS are a form of ‘critical social infrastructure’, yet they’ve been handed to a foreign company that’s both a defence contractor and targeted advertiser.”[4]
  • NHS GP David Wrigley raised whether the questions asked via Alexa would be encrypted, and who would store any data relating to patient queries.

With many also feeling that the service does not present obvious risks to user privacy…

  • Areeq Chowdhury, head of Think Tank, pointed out on Twitter that Alexa already responds to health queries from users. “Now the advice (which will be better and more accurate) will come from the NHS website”.
  • New Scientist’s deputy news editor, Jacob Arontweeted the “fuss” over the partnership was “ridiculous”. Following on to say, “It’s just a Google search you talk to, and at least people will get NHS [information].”

However, Amazons ambitions are no secret with anticipated acquisition of the healthcare sector. They have formed many healthcare partnerships over recent years, including a collaboration with Omron Healthcare to create an Alexa controlled blood pressure monitor. Leaving some to query whether the NHS-Alexa partnership will allow Amazon to gather even more data on how patients raise medical concerns. Phil Booth, a data privacy campaigner asked, “Is Amazon training its algorithm… on NHS patients’ queries?”

Amazon informed that it did not share information with third parties, nor does it build a profile on customers. A spokesman said: “All data was encrypted and kept confidential. Customers are in control of their voice history and can review or delete recordings.” Further to the matter, the public were reassured that the company would not sell products, or make product recommendations, based on the NHS partnership collected data.

NHS Digital’ article discussing the partnership provides great in-depth explanation of how and why the innovative collaboration took place. While furthermore, leading on to further provide information in addressing the aforementioned, commonly shared reservations.

Eva Lake, Head of Website Engagement, stated how the cooperative efforts commenced…

'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.'

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

'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.'

Matthew Gould, Chief Executive of NHSX

“Members of our syndication team [attended] NHS Expo 2017 to talk [with] people about the API offer from the NHS website. We met members of the Amazon Alexa team at the event and found there was mutual interest in exploring this further.”

Introduction to NHSX…

The future – above and beyond the NHS-Amazon partnership:

The government set up NHSX, a unit designed to boost digital technology use within the health service. Among the current efforts being pursued are the expansion of electronic prescribing and use of artificial intelligence for scan analysis.

Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, of the Royal College of GPs, said the move had “potential”, especially for minor ailments. However, “it is vital that independent research is done to ensure that the advice given is safe, otherwise it could prevent people seeking proper medical help and create even more pressure on our overstretched GP service.”[5]

Conclusion:

The tool should be seen as a support for vulnerable patients, while bearing in mind the facility is only an advisory mechanism. The technology should be embraced; moreover, in a technological era advancements should be adopted to mitigate current strains, propelling our healthcare system into the future.

However, with the recent escapades of data breaches and the conspiracy of capital surveillance there may be necessity for further conversations to ensure the safety of valuable patient data.

Nevertheless, the partnership is a key milestone in the revolutionary forward-thinking outlook of the NHS. The further future technological advancements, to better the healthcare system, will be interesting and exciting to witness materialise.

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