The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) announced last month that it is teaming up with Amazon to deliver health advice through the tech giant’s Alexa devices. Amazon’s algorithm will pull information from the NHS website to answer questions such as “How do I treat a migraine?” or “What are the symptoms of flu?”
The partnership comes at a time in which telemedicine has already become widely available through insurance providers, and 76% of U.S. hospitals reported using a telehealth system in 2017. SPM’s health insurance plan includes access to Teledoc, which allows employees to speak with a doctor by phone or video call. This feature saves our employees a trip to the doctor’s office with remote appointments accessible on-demand.
Alexa might be joining the telehealth space, but it does not offer a complete alternative to services like Teladoc. Voice assistants are likely already fielding medical questions, so this partnership can ensure that users in the UK will receive information verified by the NHS. These results would direct consumers to a more reliable source of information than they might find if they searched the internet on their own. However, healthcare is full of nuance, and an algorithm cannot yet replace a doctor’s ability to make a diagnosis, prescribe medicine, and consider a patient’s private medical history.
Privacy is a major concern that may make consumers wary of seeking health advice from their voice assistant. Amazon has drawn criticism with reports that its devices record conversations without users’ knowledge, though officials have said the new feature will not store any health data to share with advertisers or build customer profiles. Even if Amazon handles the data responsibly, what happens if Alexa gives an incorrect answer? This need to protect privacy may hinder the ability to test the quality of Alexa’s responses and make sure that any advice given is safe. In contrast, telemedicine services put users in contact with a doctor from their insurance provider, so any conversations are protected by HIPAA the same way they are for an in-person appointment.
Alexa can offer a free access to valuable information, but there is a risk that the convenience may encourage individuals to postpone or avoid seeing a doctor. Patients are warming up to the use of telehealth to save time and money, but an algorithm in this space is best reserved as a tool for researching simple questions rather than acting as a doctor.
Would I ask Alexa to list me “what are some symptoms of a migraine?” Sure, but I will also see a doctor, because I am more comfortable taking medical advice from a human.