Amazon Alexa Offers Health Advice to Brits Straight From the NHS
Amazon’s Alexa will now offer medical advice to British users thanks to a partnership between the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and Amazon. When asked a health-related question, Alexa will search the NHS website for answers for a response.
The new arrangement essentially integrates the NHS database into Alexa. When British users ask Alexa about disease symptoms or treatments, the response will correspond to information on the NHS website.
Users have always been able to ask Alexa for health advice, but the sources of the answers varied depending on the skills downloaded to the voice assistant or certain information that Alexa sources directly from third parties such as NHS and provides without the need for activating a skill. For instance, there’s a WebMD skill that can be used to search the popular website for medical information. More authoritatively, the Mayo Clinic released a skill to offer information on common illnesses and first aid last year, and several hospitals are also experimenting with using voice assistants to help current and potential patients. Also, last year, Alexa started tapping into Mayo Clinic’s database to provide answers directly without the need to access the skill.
The partnership with Amazon was first announced a year ago and doesn’t involve any financial exchange for Amazon, but it’s not an exclusive arrangement. The NHS already has plans to expand the voice search of its database to other platforms. Connecting voice assistants to NHS information is part of a larger effort by the NHS to integrate technology into its services, as described in its 100-page report on the subject released in February.
The British government said that the partnership could reduce the demand on NHS doctors and staff by disseminating basic information on health and wellness that would normally involve a phone call or doctor’s appointment.
Alexa’s role as a medical adviser isn’t without critics. Civil liberty groups have raised concerns about privacy and data security. Amazon has said that data is encrypted, not shared with third parties, and that Alexa doesn’t use it to build profiles of people. However, it’s unlikely to assuage everyone wary of how voice assistants collect and store information. Still, the usefulness of instant answers to health questions from a reliable source like the NHS could genuinely help people, especially as the number of people with smart speakers and other voice assistant-enabled devices continues to rise.