Patients are being encouraged to ask Amazon’s Alexa for health advice instead of seeing a doctor.
In a bid to relieve pressure on the NHS, Health Secretary Matt Hancock urged Britons to use the tech firm’s smart speakers for help with common illnesses.
Alexa – the virtual assistant installed on Amazon’s gadgets such as the Echo – responds when users address it like a real person, asking questions such as ‘Alexa, what’s the weather like today?’
In a bid to relieve pressure on the NHS, Health Secretary Matt Hancock urged Britons to use the tech firm’s smart speakers for help with common illnesses
But in addition to such trivial requests, it can now provide information from the NHS’s own website when asked for medical advice.
Critics said the health service’s official partnership with the tech giant could have ‘disastrous results’ and end up putting GPs under more pressure.
They warned that the device may put patients off seeking proper medical help, and could fail to spot symptoms of deadly diseases such as sepsis.
The gadget’s VERY mixed results:
When the Daily Mail put Alexa to the test yesterday, we found the gadget failed to provide information on several health conditions.
The device used information from the NHS website for questions on flu, and recommended calling 999 for a broken limb. But for many problems, including ones about sepsis, Alexa said: ‘Sorry, I don’t know.’ In other cases Alexa used information from online forum Wikihow – which has no medical credentials.
Q: Alexa, what are the symptoms of flu? According to the NHS website, flu symptoms come on very quickly and can include a temperature of 38C or above, aching body, feeling tired or exhausted, a dry chesty cough, sore throat, headache, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, or tummy pain, and nausea or being sick.
Q: Alexa, I think I’ve broken my arm, what should I do?
I’m sorry, I can’t help, please use your phone to call 999.
Q: Alexa, I can’t breathe, what should I do?
According to Wikihow, to breathe properly, take deep breaths using your diaphragm so you’re getting more oxygen, and avoid taking shallow breathes with your chest.
Q: Alexa, I think my Dad is having a stroke, what should I do? (Asked three times)
Sorry, I’m not sure.
Q: Alexa, I think I have sepsis, what should I do? (Asked three times)
I’m sorry, I don’t know that one.
Q: Alexa, my vision is blurred, what should I do? (Asked three times)
Sorry, I don’t know that.
Q: Alexa, I have a high temperature, what should I do? (Asked three times)
I’m sorry, I don’t know that one.
In addition, privacy campaigners said they were concerned the scheme could give Amazon access to patients’ confidential medical details.
Amazon’s devices were updated to include NHS advice this week. It comes months after Amazon admitted its employees have used Alexa to listen in to conversations inside households.
The scheme has been spearheaded by NHSX, a Government body launched earlier this month which aims to make health services available to patients via digital technology.
Mr 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.’
Gadgets including the Amazon Echo will now use information from the NHS website to answer medical questions such as: ‘Alexa, what are the symptoms of flu?’ The NHS says that using the voice-activated assistant will make its advice more accessible to those who struggle to access the internet, such as the blind.
However, when the Daily Mail tested the device, we found that Alexa failed to provide answers to a number of questions.
These included: ‘Alexa, I think I have sepsis, what should I do?’, to which the device replied: ‘Sorry, I don’t know that one.’
Dr Ron Daniels, chief executive of the UK Sepsis Trust, said: ‘The advice from Alexa will only be as accurate as the information on the NHS website, and with a complex condition like sepsis this absolutely must not act as a substitute for a face-to-face assessment.
‘We’re currently working hard with NHS England to update the online information on sepsis to reflect current knowledge and systems.
‘The symptoms of sepsis can often be confused with other illnesses and getting it wrong can have disastrous results.’
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, of the Royal College of GPs, said: ‘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.’
Ash Soni, president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said: ‘Pulling information from the NHS website through Alexa will widen access to high-quality advice and help the public in looking after their health… but can never replace the importance of a face-to-face consultation.’
It is estimated that more than two million UK households own Amazon’s smart speakers, but privacy campaigners say consumers should ‘think very carefully’ before buying one.
Eva Blum-Dumontet, of campaign group Privacy International, said she was ‘very concerned about the nature and the implications’ of the partnership between Amazon and the NHS. She said: ‘Our medical information is often the most sensitive data there is about us and a lot can be inferred from the questions we ask when we have health concerns… Amazon will have to clarify what steps they plan on taking to protect their users’ privacy.’
Matthew Gould, of NHSX, said its deal with Amazon would ‘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’. Amazon said it would not share any medical information with third parties, or use it to sell products or make product recommendations.
The company added that it does not collect personal information or share audio recordings from Alexa. A spokesman said: ‘Customer trust is of the utmost importance, and Amazon take privacy seriously. Customers are in complete control of their voice history.’
WHY ARE PEOPLE CONCERNED OVER PRIVACY WITH AMAZON’S ALEXA DEVICES?
Amazon devices have previously been activated when they’re not wanted – meaning the devices could be listening.
Millions are reluctant to invite the devices and their powerful microphones into their homes out of concern that their conversations are being heard.
Amazon devices rely on microphones listening out for a key word, which can be triggered by accident and without their owner’s realisation.
The camera on the £119.99 ($129) Echo Spot, which doubles up as a ‘smart alarm’, will also probably be facing directly at the user’s bed.
The device has such sophisticated microphones it can hear people talking from across the room – even if music is playing.
Last month a hack by British security researcher Mark Barnes saw 2015 and 2016 versions of the Echo turned into a live microphone.
Fraudsters could then use this live audio feed to collect sensitive information from the device.