Need a GP? Just ask Alexa! New NHS scheme tells patients to use smart speakers to ease pressure on staff… but critics say it could put lives at risk
- Alexa will recall reliable information from the NHS site to inform patients
- The move is part of the NHS Long Term Plan to make the service more digital
- There are concerns about Amazon’s data storing as it moves into healthcare
Patients will be encouraged to use Amazon’s smart speaker Alexa to answer medical queries in a bid to reduce pressure on NHS staff.
When asked questions such as, ‘What are the symptoms of flu?’, Alexa will be able to instantly recall a list after being hooked up to the NHS website.
The partnership is part of Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s ambitions to overhaul the NHS with technology in order to reduce the burden on staff.
Medical queries will soon be answered by Alexa, the smart speaker from Amazon, after it’s hooked up the NHS website.
Although known to be able to do a number of useful tasks, until now Alexa has only been able to give answers to health questions based on popular responses, which isn’t always reliable.
Now, people will be able to receive professional NHS-verified health information within seconds.
At the forefront of the initiative is an arm of the NHS called NHSX, launched earlier this month, which aims to make health services available to patients via digital technology.
It’s believed patients including the elderly, blind and those who are unable to access the internet in other ways will benefit the most from Alexa’s new abilities.
Mr Hancock said: ‘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, reducing the pressure on our hardworking GPs and pharmacists.
‘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.’
HOW COULD THE NHS USE MORE TECH AND AI, INCLUDING SMART SPEAKERS?
A report published earlier this year by US academic Eric Topol revealed numerous possible applications of advanced technology and artificial intelligence the NHS could use.
Evidence suggests the technology could save 5.7million hours of GPs’ time across England every year, the report says.
Suggestions included smart speakers, such as Amazon’s Alexa, being used as ‘mental health triage bots’ which engage in conversations while analysing text and voice to spot suicidal ideas and emotion.
An arm of the NHS, called NHSX, has partnered with Amazon to answer health questions by searching the official NHS website.
According to the report, virtual reality could be used in reducing pain and distress for wounded patients, and for treating anxiety, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Artificial intelligence (AI) could save time in interpreting scans such as mammograms, eye scans and pathology slides, and also improve the accuracy of diagnoses.
And the assistance of robots in surgery could be expanded, while they could also automate repetitive tasks such as dispensing drugs in pharmacies.
The report added that using phones or Skype for diagnoses and treatment has the potential for significant time and money saving.
Amazon’s algorithm will use information from the NHS website to provide answers to questions such as: ‘Alexa, how do I treat a migraine?’, in order to help patients decide if they need to see a doctor.
Tech experts predict that by 2020, half of all searches for information will be via voice-assisted technology in apps such as Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri.
Adi Latif, 38, who is registered blind, said asking Alexa for health advice is more convenient than leaving the home.
The consultant at AbilityNet, a charity which helps disabled people use technology, from Camden, London, uses Amazon Alexa and other voice-assisted technology for everyday tasks.
He said: ‘Convenience is king and it’s brilliant to know I can ask Alexa about various illnesses and receive credible, NHS-verified information.
‘It cuts out all the searching online, which can be a traumatic experience for many people – especially those who are disabled or not familiar with technology.
‘NHS services need to be designed in a way that allows all people, including those who are blind or disabled, to access them easily from the convenience of their own home.’
Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX, said: ‘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.
‘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.’
Smart speakers have been predicted to become ‘virtual medical coaches’ that will be able to monitor patients with diabetes, asthma or depression in their own homes.
Programmes connected to wearable sensos will use artificial intelligence to spot when someone’s illness and normal behaviour to ‘pre-empt hospitalisation’, and warn the patient.
That’s according to a report written by US geneticist Eric Topol, commissioned by the former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, which Mr Hunt said would ‘act as a blueprint’ for the long-term future of the NHS.
WHY ARE PEOPLE CONCERNED OVER PRIVACY WITH AMAZON’S ALEXA DEVICES?
Amazon devices have previously been activated when they’re not wanted – meaning the devices could be listening.
Millions are reluctant to invite the devices and their powerful microphones into their homes out of concern that their conversations are being heard.
Amazon devices rely on microphones listening out for a key word, which can be triggered by accident and without their owner’s realisation.
The camera on the £119.99 ($129) Echo Spot, which doubles up as a ‘smart alarm’, will also probably be facing directly at the user’s bed.
The device has such sophisticated microphones it can hear people talking from across the room – even if music is playing.
Last month a hack by British security researcher Mark Barnes saw 2015 and 2016 versions of the Echo turned into a live microphone.
Fraudsters could then use this live audio feed to collect sensitive information from the device.