Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 14 November 2019

Amazon's Alexa to give UK patients professional medical advice

Questions on treating a migraine or the symptoms of flu are expected to be common

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has rejected concerns the decision to allow the National Health Service to work with Amazon could infringe on people’s privacy. AFP
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has rejected concerns the decision to allow the National Health Service to work with Amazon could infringe on people’s privacy. AFP

The UK public health system will partner with technology giant Amazon to provide medical information via the voice-assisted device known as Alexa.

Aimed at the elderly and sight-impaired in particular, it will allow people to be given advice approved by the UK’s National Health Service.

Typical questions could be “how do I treat a migraine?” or “what are the symptoms of flu?”

But the government has been forced to deny the decision presented a potential data protection catastrophe.

Health secretary Matt Hancock, who told Sky News he does not own an Alexa device, said there would be stringent privacy rules in place to ensure data was not sold on for commercial use.

“Encouraging the public to give their private health details to one of the most aggressive corporate data guzzlers is astonishingly misguided,” said Silkie Carlo, the director of Britain’s Big Brother Watch civil liberties group.

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

"It's a data protection disaster waiting to happen."

But the health department rejected concerns Amazon will be able to access Britons' medical records.

"No patient data is being shared with Amazon as part of this agreement," it told AFP.

"Amazon is not sharing any of this information with third parties, nor is it selling products or making product recommendations based on this health information, nor is it building a health profile on customers."

With the NHS under pressure and family doctors increasingly stretched, officials hope it will be able to reduce the burden on medical workers by supplying information on common illnesses.

The UK health department said it expected half of all symptom checks and other medical queries to be made through voice-assisted technology by next year.

In February, authorities announced the creation of a joint unit called NHSX to reap the benefits of technological advancements to support patients and clinicians.

“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,” said Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX.

Updated: July 10, 2019 06:28 PM

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