NHS partners with Amazon to provide health information through Alexa

The U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) has partnered with tech giant Amazon to enable patients to access verified health information using Alexa devices.

The NHS touts the initiative as particularly helpful for elderly patients, blind patients and those who cannot access the internet. By using Amazon’s voice-assisted technology, patients can use simple voice commands to get NHS-verified information in answer to their health-related questions.

Amazon’s algorithm uses information from the NHS website to provide answers to voice questions such as how to treat a migraine and how to identify symptoms of flu or chickenpox.

The technology has the potential to reduce the pressure on the NHS and physicians by providing information for common illnesses and enabling physicians to focus on higher-level tasks, the NHS said.

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Many healthcare organizations in the U.S. are turning to voice-enabled digital assistants as a way to combat physician burnout. Sutter Health and Unified Physician Management are both using Suki, a voice technology and artificial intelligence tool to help doctors with medical charting during patient visits.

The effort is part of a 1 billion pound initiative to transform digital innovation in the NHS. That effort, called NHSX, formally launched in February as part of the NHS Long Term Plan to modernize health services.

“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,” Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock said in a statement.

“The public need to be able to get reliable information about their health easily and in ways they actually use,” said Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX. “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.”

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Gould said it is NHSX’s mission to give patients the tools to access services and information directly, and the Amazon partnership is an important part of achieving this.

Some critics of the collaboration with Amazon have raised concerns about privacy and the tech giant's access to patient information. Other critics have questioned the use of technology to replace the traditional patient-doctor relationship.

Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Tom Watson tweeted: "The giant data monopolies want one thing: more and more data to drive their huge profits. Entrusting Amazon's Alexa to dispense health advice to patients simply opens the door to the holy grail—our NHS data."

The use of voice-assisted technology is growing rapidly in healthcare. Boston Children’s Hospital piloted several voice applications, including to improve the efficiency of ICU care and to streamline the preoperative organ transplant process. Rochester, Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic first launched a first-aid voice app on Amazon Alexa devices in 2017 and has since expanded its services while also researching the use of voice to potentially diagnosis disease.

Gartner predicts that by 2020, 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen. Given that consumers are looking up their health symptoms through online searches, organizations like Mayo and now the NHS are putting their clinical expertise behind first-aid instructions and symptom checkers.

In April, Amazon rolled out HIPAA-compliant skills for Alexa and announced the first six healthcare organizations, including Cigna and Atrium Health, now currently building voice skills that can securely transmit private patient health information.