Amazon Alexa takes active role in healthcare

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“Alexa, what are the main symptoms of flu?

“Alexa, what is the closest GP practice in my area?”

“Alexa, does endometriosis cause menstrual pain?”

Your Amazon Alexa device is now able to answer questions like the above, thanks to a new partnership between Amazon and the NHS that was announced on the 10th July 2019. Alexa is set to help make health advice accessible, collecting verified healthcare information from the NHS website and delivering it to people’s homes, by simply following a voice command. To achieve that, Alexa uses special artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. This partnership is positive, overall. However, it sparks some legitimate concerns.

The news was initially welcomed with excitement. Many believe that this new functionality will help patients feel more empowered and take control of their health. Patients at advanced age or the ones with impaired vision or mobility, disabilities and long-term conditions may find it particularly useful. Even though Alexa uses high level digital technology, it is a simple, user-friendly tool for all and does not require digitally educated users. Alexa can enable people to perform simple health checks in the comfort of their home, for example by guiding women through a breast check or by asking key questions to verify stroke incidents. Furthermore, the use of the new Alexa feature is expected to contribute to relieving GPs of their busy schedules and allow time for more urgent appointments. This is a great example of how AI is slowly being integrated into our health system and helps towards its advancement.

However, some concerns around patient data protection were quickly raised, that we at medCrowd also share. The announcement about the partnership came with lack of clarity about the storage and use of patient data. It is concerning that although personal and health data is heavily protected under GDPR in the UK, Amazon Alexa does not comply with the same laws. In fact, Alexa is set by default to record and store conversations indefinitely. Healthcare is built on trust after all. Taking proper measures is crucial to ensure conversations are encrypted and not recorded, and that patient data is protected and does not end up in the Amazon marketplace.

Another question is related to costs. Will individuals be able to afford the cost of the Alexa device? Amazon could consider lowering the price of Alexa, to avoid health access inequalities. The NHS could possibly consider partnering with Google to enable similar access to NHS healthcare information through the Google assistant tool, which is more affordable for a broad population group.

Finally, further research would be required to confirm the advice provided is valid, accurate and safe. Until then, no patient should feel confident replacing a GP’s advice with an “Alexa question”.