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Dr Alexa is ready to see you now - NHS embraces voice assisted technology

View profile for Laura Sheehan
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Dr Alexa is ready to see you now - NHS embraces voice assisted technology

Got a problem cough? Worried about a lump? Many of us now turn to the internet and Google our symptoms as a first port of call. Well, as of this week, the Amazon Alexa is able to search the official NHS website in order to answer any health related questions we have.                                       

The government believe that this new arrangement with the voice assisted technology will reduce the demand on human doctors and the NHS generally. But will it? And is this a positive step? 

The use of voice search is on the increase as technology advances. More and more people are using this way of accessing the internet, particularly with the likes of the Amazon Alexa now becoming part of the furniture in people’s homes. 

So how does it work? 

Amazon’s algorithm uses information from the official NHS website to provide answers to your everyday health related questions such as, “what are the symptoms of chicken pox”. 

The Government hope that the advancement in technology will empower people to take better control over their healthcare and believe it will benefit more vulnerable people such as the elderly or those who are visually impaired who may struggle to access the internet through more traditional means. 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said it was right for the NHS to "embrace" technology in this way, predicting it would reduce pressure on "our hard-working GPs and pharmacists". Previously Alexa was accessing health related information from various sources whereas now it would be confined to just the NHS website which should be better and more accurate. 

However the announcement has also come up against criticism. Some groups have slated the use of public money spend in this way rather than improving access to frontline services where people can speak to and receive treatment from a medical professional. 

There is a further concern that Amazon will be collating the data from the questions people ask Alexa. This would have two implications. The first is that the data would not be confidential and secondly that Amazon would use this data to make product recommendations or sell products. Amazon have said that they would not do this and all data is encrypted and kept confidential. Users are also in control of their voice history and can review or delete recordings.   

The reality is that technology will take an ever more presenting force in our everyday lives. 

I personally feel more reassured that Alexa will now be providing information from the NHS website rather than other potentially inaccurate sources so for those of us that do want to check our symptoms before bothering our doctors, it’s a positive step. However where do you draw the line? Could we eventually have a situation where only artificial intelligence diagnoses and treats us? Who would be making sure the advice and treatment given was safe and accurate? Who would ultimately be responsible for this and the safety of patients?  And what if things go wrong? It is vital that advances in technology don’t prevent people from accessing proper healthcare and that if things do wrong and a patient suffers an injury as a result of inaccurate artificial intelligence that there be recourse and a route to compensation for that victim.