The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has announced what it claims is a world first: a partnership with Amazon’s Alexa to offer health advice from the NHS website.
Britons who ask Alexa basic health questions like “Alexa, how do I treat a migraine?” and “Alexa, what are the symptoms of flu?” will be given answers vetted by NHS health professionals and currently available on its website. At the moment, Alexa sources answers to such questions from a variety of places, including the Mayo Clinic and WebMD.
The partnership does not add significantly to Alexa’s skill-set, but it is an interesting step for the NHS. The UK’s Department of Health (DoH) says it hopes the move will reduce the pressure on health professionals in the country, giving people a new way to access reliable medical advice. It will also benefit individuals with disabilities, like sight impairments, who may find it difficult to use computers or smartphones to find the same information.
The UK’s Royal College of GPs welcomed the news, with the organization’s chairwoman, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, saying in a press statement that the collaboration “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.”
But Stokes-Lampard also warned that the scheme could have downsides. She warned that 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.”
Other experiments to improve NHS accessibility using technology have had mixed results. A partnership with healthtech firm Babylon, for example, which offers patient consultations via a smartphone app, has been criticized for gaming the UK’s healthcare system. Doctors says the app mainly attracts young, low-maintenance patients, while pushing harder and more expensive cases back to regular GPs.
It’s not clear if the new NHS answers will ever be available to Alexa users outside of the UK, or if the service will ever recommend that users seek a doctor instead. We’ve contacted the NHS to clarify these points and will update this story if we hear more.