“Alexa, what are the symptoms of flu?”
The UK government said Wednesday that Britons will be able to get an answer to this and other simple medical questions from the National Health Service (NHS) using their Amazon smart speakers.
The state-run health system’s tie-up with the California-based technology giant drew praise from overworked doctors and professionals weary of bad medical advice proliferating online.
But privacy campaigners expressed alarm over the possibility of Amazon storing medical data and then using it to sell targeted ads.
“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,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a statement.
Amazon said it began updating its Echo smart speakers to search NHS websites for medical answers at the start of the week.
The UK health department said it expected half of all symptom checks and other medical queries to be made through voice-assisted technology by next year.
It added that the new and more reliable service would be especially helpful to the elderly and the blind.
Health professionals also welcomed the government’s embrace of shifting consumer habits and the growing dominance of voice services.
“However, it is vital that independent research is done to ensure that the advice given is safe,” Royal College of GPs chairwoman Helen Stokes-Lampard said.
“Otherwise it could prevent people seeking proper medical help and create even more pressure on our overstretched GP service.”
Some privacy campaigners also pointed out that Amazon stores users’ voice recordings in their own data centres.
“Encouraging the public to give their private health details to one of the most aggressive corporate data guzzlers is astonishingly misguided,” Britain’s Big Brother Watch civil liberties group director Silkie Carlo said.
“Healthcare is made inaccessible when trust and privacy is stripped away, and that’s what this terrible plan would do,” Carlo said.
“It’s a data protection disaster waiting to happen.”
The new service is being billed by the UK government as a world-first.
The government also points out that Amazon will not be able to access Britons’ medical records.
The NHS website offers basic advice on thousands of medical conditions and is one of the most popular symptom checkers in the world.