NHS and Amazon Alexa: playing with fire or welcome relief?

Estimated reading time 3 minutes

By Dr Stefan Buttigieg

The UK’s National Health Service just announced a collaboration with Amazon to offer health advice through it’s popular Voice Assistant Alexa. People living in the UK and who own an Amazon Alexa will be able to ask specific questions such as: “Alexa, what are the symptoms of a urinary infection?” or “Alexa how do I treat a migraine?”. These are common questions that we usually ask our medical doctors and there is an interesting opportunity to bridge the gap between those who struggle to reach out to their doctor at short notice and those who visit the doctor for every symptom they struggle with.

Getting Amazon Alexa

There is an even lower barrier as getting an Alexa device is available at a relatively cheap price. Imagine, you can get Amazon Echo for a mere 30 EUR, and you might be even better off if you make a bargain off a Black Friday Sale. Reaching out to Alexa, basing it’s information on verified health advice is definitely better than relying and going through a barrage of information on major search engines such as Google. We need to start working to guide people to the right information sources, and it’s inevitable that the NHS attempt such a partnership.

If you’ve got an Amazon Alexa Voice Assistant, it has yet to be made clear whether this information will be available to users outside the UK.

Not the first Alexa Skill to give health advice

This is not the first time that health voice assistants have made an appearance on the market, you have symptom checkers such as Infermedica’s Symptomate, Mediktor, Babylon Health or WebMD’s Alexa Skill. But it’s definitely a first time, that a national health system cements an agreement with a tech giant such as Amazon, to distribute it’s health information and advice through it’s voice platforms. Other countries such as Finland have built a health chatbot in collaboration with private companies such as Tieto

Matt Hancock in an interview on Sky News focused on the importance that the NHS needs to stay updated and that people are already using Alexa to ask for Health advice and that he wants UK’s citizens to :

“get the right answers”

Cautious Support by Medical Professionals

Medical Professionals in the UK, namely the Royal College of GPs have already praised this effort but reiterated the importance of monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of such solutions. There is definitely an opportunity for GPs to play an integral role in this journey and it might potentially allow general practitioners to focus more of their time on pressing health problems that deserve more attention.

This initiative could inspire Startups to build on top this platform and connect easily to the NHS’s health advice, thus creating a pathway to users to access reliable health information. The next important step that we need to take, is that different countries start creating tailored health information for their populations. My next question would be: which country will be next? Malta? Why not!