Worried about a lump? Got a nasty cough that won’t budge? Many people Google queries about such symptoms daily – but now they can get NHS advice instantly by asking Amazon’s Alexa.
The voice-activated assistant is now automatically searching NHS web pages to find answers to medical questions.
And the government hopes it will reduce the demand on human doctors.
But the move has split opinion among artificial intelligence (AI) experts and data ethicists.
“The sensitive data holdings of a national healthcare provider like the NHS are a form of ‘critical social infrastructure’,” said Berlin-based tech expert Mathana Stender.
“Yet they’ve been handed to a foreign company that’s both a defense contractor and targeted advertiser,”
NHS GP David Wrigley asked, among other things, whether the questions asked via Alexa would be encrypted and who would store any data relating to patient queries.
Amazon has said all data would be kept confidential.
The NHS has increasingly partnered with private companies to offer access to its services.
Notably, Babylon Health, Push Doctor and Now GP all allow video appointments with GPs to be made remotely.
Babylon Health, for example, says only patients and staff involved in service provision have access to patient medical records.
It adds that all data is encrypted and held in English data centres.
Amazon said multiple layers of authentication would protect the data from UK customers and that all information would be encrypted.
Some commentators felt that the service did not present obvious risks to users’ privacy.
Areeq Chowdhury, at the Future Advocacy think tank, pointed out that Alexa already responded to health queries from users.
“Now the advice (which will be better and more accurate) will come from the NHS website,” he tweeted.
New Scientist’s deputy news editor Jacob Aron said the “fuss” over the partnership was “ridiculous”.
“It’s just a Google search you talk to, and at least people will get NHS [information].”
There was another issue at stake, however. Some pointed out that Amazon is known to have major ambitions in the healthcare industry.
During 2018 the firm took a number of steps in this direction – including pairing up with Omron Healthcare to allow a blood pressure monitor to be controlled via Alexa.
It also announced software that could automatically analyse electronic health records for information that could be useful to doctors.
The tool will use AI to pick out important details from medical documents – including “hospital admission notes and a patient’s medical history”.
Some have asked whether the NHS-Alexa partnership will allow Amazon to gather yet more data on how patients raise medical concerns.
“Is Amazon training its algorithm… on NHS patients’ queries?” asked data privacy campaigner Phil Booth.
Amazon said that it would not sell products or make product recommendations based on the data collected as part of the NHS partnership.
The firm also confirmed that it would not build a health profile of users who asked Alexa health-related questions.