Is there a doctor in the house?
Accessing health advice in the UK has just got a little easier, thanks to a new partnership between the NHS and Amazon’s Alexa. As of mid-July, anyone worried about their health can use their smart speaker to access Alexa and ask for advice. The voice-assisted technology will gather information from the official NHS website before presenting it to the user in an easy to understand format. It’s then up to the user how they use the advice, or whether their issue requires further medical attention and support.
NHS and Amazon have welcomed the new system, saying that it could help reduce demand on the NHS’s walk-in and A&E services, while offering immediate help to anxious people at home or on the move. They add that the Alexa/NHS partnership is set to benefit a wide cross-section of society, especially vulnerable people, such as the elderly or disabled people and those with a visual impairment that makes searching for answers online difficult.
Being able to use Alexa to access information cuts out the need to trawl through the NHS website and other health-related resources online, which could take ages at a time when a timely answer may make all the difference to subsequent medical treatment.
Taking away the headache
Typical questions asked might include, ‘Alexa, how do I treat a migraine?’ or, ‘Alexa, what are the symptoms of chicken pox?’ Having rapid access to the answers will empower people and enable them to make a more informed decision about whether to book a GP appointment or present themselves at their local pharmacy or hospital A&E department. Of course, if you do not understand, or are not happy with Alexa’s answers for any reason, you should still seek medical help and advice in the traditional way.
Amazon has addressed privacy concerns, saying that patient data will be encrypted and kept confidential. The service has said that it will not share information with third parties, nor does it build up any form of customer profile based on what people ask. Customers will be able to access and delete their own recordings.
One giant leap?
Smart speaker users can already ask Alexa, as well as other voice-recognition functions, for medical advice that comes from a range of websites, so the service may not represent a huge leap forward for Amazon. However, it’s a very interesting step for the NHS, embracing this popular, new way of searching for information digitally to cut pressure on its already over-subscribed ‘real-world’ resources. It will especially help people work out how to treat minor ailments at home that don’t require face-to-face medical intervention. Plus, as already mentioned, it could prove a literal lifeline for vulnerable users who cannot access the internet or pop out to their nearest medical centre quite so easily. Voice-recognition software experts predict that half of all internet searches will be performed via voice-assisted technology by 2020, so this partnership is tapping in to a popular, growing trend.
As more and more of us are investing in smart speakers and finding out what they can do for us, it seems the next logical step to move on from using our speakers for entertainment and general life logistics to helping with the fundamental human need to preserve not only our mental well-being but also our physical health.