NHS advice available through Alexa

Author: Jo Carlowe

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The NHS is collaborating with Amazon to provide health information through voice-assisted technology.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), has announced today that the public will be able to get NHS-verified health information ‘in seconds’ through simple voice commands delivered to Amazon Alexa devices. It says the new collaboration will be especially helpful to patients such as ‘the elderly’ and ‘blind’ who cannot access the internet through traditional means.

Amazon’s algorithm uses information from the NHS website to provide answers to voice questions such as:

  • “Alexa, how do I treat a migraine?”
  • “Alexa, what are the symptoms of flu?”
  • “Alexa, what are the symptoms of chickenpox”

The DHSC says the technology has the potential to reduce the pressure on the NHS and GPs by providing information for common illnesses.

By 2020, half of all searches are expected to be made through voice-assisted technology.

The government has set up a unit, NHSX, which will look at ways of making more NHS services available to all patients through digital technology.

The announcement supports the commitment in the NHS Long Term Plan to make more NHS services available digitally.

Commenting, secretary of state for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock said: “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.

“Through the NHS Long Term Plan, we want to embrace the advances in technology to build a health and care system that is fit for the future and NHSX will drive this revolution to bring the benefits to every patient, clinician and carer.”

Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX, said: “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. Part of our mission at NHSX is to give citizens the tools to access services and information directly, and partnerships such as this are an important part of achieving this.”

Commenting on today’s announcement, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: "This idea is certainly interesting and it has the potential to help some patients work out what kind of care they need before considering whether to seek face-to-face medical help, especially for minor ailments that rarely need a GP appointment, such as coughs and colds that can be safely treated at home.

"NHS Choices (nhs.uk) is already one of the most reliable online sources for health advice, symptom and treatment information, and many people are familiar with voice-assisted technology and feel comfortable using it. Combining the two could be an effective way of accessing information about your health without leaving your home – thereby freeing up more GP appointments for those patients who need them most. However, it is vital that independent research is done to ensure that the advice given is safe, otherwise it could prevent people seeking proper medical help and create even more pressure on our overstretched GP service.”

She added that many patients will not be able to afford the expense of voice-assisted technology, thus “widening health inequalities and making access to care even harder for some of the most vulnerable people in our society”.

"Technology can be brilliant, when used appropriately, and it is playing an increasingly important part in the way we deliver care to our patients throughout the NHS, but we must be careful not to create a 'digital divide' between those patients who can afford it and are able to use it, and those who can’t,” she said.

"Patients who are frail often have more complex healthcare needs so it is important that they do not rely on this as their sole source of health advice, but seek the help of a healthcare professional such as a local pharmacist who can give further guidance on whether they need the expert care of a GP for more serious or ongoing symptoms.”

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