The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is collaborating with Amazon to provide health advice through the company’s Alexa virtual assistants, according to Business Insider.
UK citizens will be able to ask Alexa questions like “How do I treat a migraine?” or “What are the symptoms of the flu?” and receive professional recommendations directly from the NHS website.
Alexa can already answer health questions using sites like WebMD and Mayo Clinic. But the NHS believes the move will help make their own recommendations more accessible to blind or elderly patients that would face difficulties using the internet otherwise. They also point out that allowing patients to easily get information for minor issues could help reduce pressure on overburdened doctors.
Royal College of General Practitioners chairwoman, Helen Stokes-Lampard, said in a press statement that the move “has the potential to help some patients work out what kind of care they need before considering whether to seek face-to-face medical help, especially for minor ailments.”
But others voiced concern about the project, including fears over user data and privacy.
In recent years, tech companies have faced more scrutiny over the way they handle the personal information of their users. This has included controversies over policies that allow sharing user data with third parties, and whether companies have taken sufficient steps to protect against data breaches.
An Amazon spokesperson told The Times that it would not share user data from the NHS collaboration or use it to profile customers. But the company’s virtual assistant devices have raised privacy concerns in the past, after it was revealed that they had inadvertently recorded and sent personal conversations to users’ contacts. And in April, Bloomberg reported that Amazon employees were listening to certain recordings of user conversations.
“It’s a data protection disaster waiting to happen,” said Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, a civil liberty group, speaking to the BBC. “Healthcare is made inaccessible when trust and privacy is stripped away, and that’s what this terrible plan would do.”
And Stokes-Lampard also expressed reservations about the plan, saying it’s “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.”
Other efforts to digitize and streamline NHS care have yielded mixed results.
A smartphone app offering NHS consultations has come under fire for disrupting the system and receiving a disproportionate amount of funding, while drawing younger, low-maintenance patients and leaving tougher cases for overburdened doctors.