The online retail giant updated its Alexa smart speakers earlier this week to automatically search the NHS website if asked a healthcare question.
“I’m delighted that today we’re officially launching a new collaboration between the NHS and Amazon, pairing our expert medical advice with their market-leading Alexa device,” health secretary Matt Hancock said.
“When sick people need medical information, the information they’ll receive will be NHS information: accurate, reliable, safe. This will particularly benefit people who rely on voice-activated tech, because they struggle with other devices – elderly people, blind and visually impaired people.
“What this new collaboration means is that Alexa’s algorithms will use medically verified information from the NHS to answer medical questions and provide guidance.”
The NHS said it expects half of all symptom checks to be made through voice-assisted technology by next year.
Privacy campaigners have expressed concern that the data could be stored and used to sell targeted ads aimed at customers.
Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “Encouraging the public to give their private health details to one of the most aggressive corporate data guzzlers is astonishingly misguided.
“Amazon’s Alexa records what people say, stores recordings in data centres we know nothing about and exploits our data for profit.
“This scheme will likely result in people being profiled and targeted by data brokers based on their deeply personal health concerns.
“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.”
Amazon has defended the new partnership, saying in a prepared statement: “Customer trust is of the utmost importance and Amazon takes privacy seriously. Customers are in control of their voice history. They can review and delete voice recordings in the Alexa App or by visiting amazon.co.uk/privacy.
“They can also opt-in to ‘delete what I just said’ or ‘delete what I said today’.”
Amazon said it would not share any information with third parties, nor is it selling products or making product recommendations based on the health information.
It said it will not build a health profile of customers and all information is treated with the highest confidentiality.
The new partnership has been spearheaded by NHSX, an NHS body set up to bring digital technology to patients.
Hancock defended the plans, telling the King’s Fund annual leadership conference in central London on Wednesday, “I think it’s absolutely terrific, because at the moment they are asking Alexa about stuff anyway, so why not get them the best advice?”
Amazon’s algorithm will use information from the NHS website to provide answers to questions such as: “Alexa, how do I treat a migraine?”; “Alexa, what are the symptoms of flu?”, and “Alexa, what are the symptoms of chickenpox?”
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, welcomed the move, but urged caution, saying, “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.
“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.”
In 2018, a police force in Lancashire began streaming daily briefings to Alexa-enabled speakers.