Link-up will see voice recognition service utilise NHS Choices advice to help patients in their own homes
The Government has entered into a partnership with Amazon through which patients will be able to get expert medical advice using Alexa communication devices in their homes.
From this week, the voice-assisted technology is automatically searching the official NHS website when UK users ask for health-related advice.
The government hopes the move will dramatically reduce demand on overstretched NHS services.
And it is now in talks with other companies, including Microsoft, to set up similar arrangements with them.
Previously, Alexa provided health information based on a variety of popular responses.
Accessing high-quality information with assured provenance is important when using the internet to research medical issues
But, under the new partnership, Amazon's algorithm will use information from the NHS website to provide answers to questions such as, ‘How do I treat a migraine?’ and, ‘What are the symptoms of chickenpox?’
Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said it was right for the NHS to ‘embrace’ technology in this way, predicting it would reduce pressure on GPs and pharmacists.
"We want to empower every patient to take better control of their healthcare," he added.
But, while Amazon says all information will be kept confidential, the Government’s decision has been met with concern from privacy groups.
Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “Any public money spent on this awful plan rather than frontline services would be a breath-taking waste.
"Healthcare is made inaccessible when trust and privacy is stripped away, and that's what this terrible plan would do.
"It's a data protection disaster waiting to happen."
But, a spokesman for Amazon said it did not share information with third parties, nor does it build a profile of users.
Any public money spent on this awful plan rather than frontline services would be a breath-taking waste
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard of the Royal College of GPs said the move had ‘potential’, especially for dealing with minor ailments.
But she said it was vital that independent research was done to make sure the advice being given was safe or it could prevent people seeking proper medical help and create even more pressure on the over-stretched system.
And she added that it was important to remember that not everyone was comfortable using such technology, or could afford it.
Speaking to BBH after the announcement, Matt Walmsley, EMEA director of cyber security specialist, Vectra, said: “This a new way to access existing information from NHS Choices, and the type of inquiry data is unlikely to be any more sensitive than that used in utilising their website to access the same clinical information and advice.
“Accessing high-quality information with assured provenance is important when using the internet to research medical issues.
“The existing broader privacy concerns and risks around the anonymisation, storage and re-use of smart speakers’ recordings of our spoken interactions remain. However, users need to be informed and comfortable with how Amazon and NHS Choices are processing and using their data.” ’p>