Comment: Is asking Alexa for advice good for the future of healthcare?

11th July 2019

Everyone with access to Amazon’s ‘Alexa’ will receive expert health advice under a new partnership with the NHS.

That’s According to new information released by the government.

From this week, Amazon’s flagship voice assistant will search the NHS Choices website to provide UK users with a range of health advice.

Fletchers Solicitors Medical Negligence Supervisor, Jorel Sanchez believes if used correctly, the technology could be beneficial.

The technology has been developed with the idea of reducing pressure on the staff of the NHS, as well as allowing vulnerable adults access to information they may otherwise struggle to reach.

This is most certainly a positive idea, and many of our own customers could be people who would benefit from this if used correctly.

The Department of Health also believe the technology can help reduce the demand on over-stretched NHS services, with Health Secretary, Matt Hancock arguing the time is now for the NHS to “embrace” technology. 

We want to empower every patient to take better control of their healthcare.

But the announcement has drawn vocal criticism from privacy campaigners.

Director of the civil liberty group, Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo believes spending public money on such services is papering over the cracks.

Any public money spent on this awful plan rather than front line services would be a breath-taking waste.

Healthcare is made inaccessible when trust and privacy is stripped away, and that’s what this terrible plan would do.

It’s a data protection disaster waiting to happen.

In terms of regulation and access, Jorel has his own concerns.

A scene in the Jordan Peele-helmed film “Us” (viewer discretion advised) shows that the technology we have, whilst impressive and innovative, is not infallible, and if this technology is to be used, it must be known that this is as useful and reliable as doing the searches through the NHS websites ourselves.

Assistant Litigation Executive, Alicia Lovely also views the announcement with some trepidation and believes voice-activated healthcare can only be as good as the human behind it.

We have to consider that AI has by no means been perfected and it is essentially still a machine that requires a user to give it specific instructions.

It could therefore become a danger to public health as many symptoms can be hidden for some time such as meningitis.

If a patient presented their symptoms to an Alexa without an examination, how can it then alert the user to the seriousness of their symptoms?

This could mean that the patient is unaware of the risk!

If we prevent people seeking proper medical help we may create even more pressure on the NHS.

In terms of affordability, Alicia asks if this is another way for Amazon to see profits soar?

Amazon say the new technology will provide the elderly or those with a visual impairment easier healthcare access, however this isn’t necessarily accurate.

Do many elderly relatives or friends have an Alexa in their home?

Furthermore, is the access compatible for all pre-existing models or do we need to upgrade?

Fletchers Senior Security Engineer and in-house Cyber Security expert, Chris Bentley argues that we’re a long way away from Alexa’s artificial intelligence replacing human healthcare:

I think it’s important to note that at this early stage of the service, if someone asks Alexa for medical advice, this hooks into the NHS Website and then reads the same advice that you would receive if you were to perform a standard google search on a computer. 

So, this isn’t designed to replace a traditional visit to see a doctor.

However, there is definitely a benefit if someone is seeking advice, then they are getting it directly from the NHS, and not just a random internet source. 

From a privacy point of view, Amazon have advised that all data will be kept confidential as well as using multiple layers of authentication and encryption. 

As the service expands out, it will be interesting to see how security layers are expanded out, and also if any hacker groups attempt to access any of this information. 

Definitely one to watch!

Further Reading…

You don't have to go through this alone - take the first step now

  • IIP - Investors in People
  • The Sunday Times Top 100 - Best Companies To Work For 2016
  • The Investors In People Awards 2016 - Winner
  • The Legal 500 - Leading Firm 2015
  • The Law Society - Clinical Negligence
  • The Lawyer UK200 - Listed Firm 2015
  • Top Ranked Leading Individual - Chambers UK 2019