Healthtech industry reacts to Amazon Alexa NHS partnership

The healthtech industry has been reacting to the move from the Department of Health to allow Amazon Alexa devices to give out health advice in a partnership with the NHS.

The BBC reports that the Department of Health feels it could reduce demand on the health service, and empower patients to take control of their health, but it has been described as a “data protection disaster waiting to happen” by civil liberty group Big Brother Watch.

Dr Roger Henderson, GP and medical director of Liva Healthcare feels that patients with chronic disease can be the biggest losers, and urged people to go to their GP if in doubt.

He said: “It is alarming to think that patients could be solely relying on a device to receive healthcare information. It is unfit for purpose, especially when it comes to patients making a treatment plan

“Patients should always bear in mind that Alexa is not giving them specific individual information tailored to them, but instead providing a generic reply based on algorithms and known medical data on various conditions. The advice is a simple one here – if in doubt, get checked out by a human.”

Gary Williams, director of sales and consultancy, UK, at Spitch suggested that this won’t be the last time this type of technology will be adopted by the NHS.

He said: “If the NHS can utilise this successfully, they can help lift the pressure on already strained emergency call centre operators and deliver real impact – driving enquiries to the voice assistant and freeing up operators to deal with the most pressing emergencies.

“Voice technology is now so advanced it can identify regional accents, slang and even emotion. While Alexa may not yet have all of these capabilities, we will continue to see the healthcare sector innovate through voice technology so that they can deliver information to people from across the country and completely change the way they engage and interact with the public.”

Williams suggested that implementing biometrics might be the next stage of implementing such technologies.

He added: “Everybody knows how difficult it is to get through to the reception at their GP, so imagine being able to call up your doctors, speak to an AI-powered voice bot that can identify you and help deal with your basic enquiries, such as re-arranging an appointment or checking up on a prescription, ridding the need for you to sit in a call queue. If your query is more personal, or complex, you could be transferred to a human operator who will already know who is calling thanks to the voice biometrics, and can advise you accordingly.

Matt Walmsley, EMEA director at Vectra, focussed on any potential data privacy concerns that may arise from the use of the technology.

He 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 speaker’s recordings of our spoken interactions remain, however. Caveat emptor; users need to be informed and comfortable with how Amazon and NHS Choices are processing and using their data.”

Alan Lowe, CEO at Visionable, analysed the need for medical professionals to be involved in the process of adopting new technologies, saying: “From my experience of working with the NHS – both internally and as an external partner – new technologies have the biggest impact on patient care when they are implemented hand-in-hand with clinicians. That means listening to the challenges doctors or nurses are facing, and building solutions that meet those needs.

“It’ll be interesting to see how this integration plays out, but something worth considering is whether voice technologies will improve patient care in isolation. It’s possible that combining voice with superior video capabilities would better help patients get the treatment they need.”

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