Alexa users in the U.K. can now ask their device questions about common illnesses. The National Health Service (NHS) and Amazon are offering the new service in a bid to reduce pressure on human doctors and to help people who might otherwise struggle to find health information on the internet.
Amazon’s algorithm will automatically search the NHS website for answers to queries such as “Alexa, how do I treat a migraine?” or “Alexa, what are the symptoms of flu?”
Using a voice assistant is obviously more efficient than typing one’s symptoms into a search engine. But the offering also eliminates the need to comb through dozens of search results to identify the most credible sources and simplifies the process for elderly people or blind people who can find it daunting to navigate such searches.
“Convenience is king and it’s brilliant to know I can ask Alexa about various illnesses and receive credible, NHS-verified information,” said Adi Latif, a consultant at the charity AbilityNet, to The Guardian. Latif is registered blind and already uses Alexa for everyday tasks.
“It cuts out all the searching online, which can be a traumatic experience for many people, especially those who are disabled or not familiar with technology,” Latif said.
The NHS made clear it would not be handing out Amazon Echo devices—those go for £24.99 or about $30 a pop in the U.K.—but that the app would be free.
“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,” said Matt Hancock, the British health secretary, according to The Guardian.
Critics including Silkie Carlo, director of the civil liberties and privacy campaigning organization Big Brother Watch, raised data protection concerns.
“Amazon’s Alexa records what people say, stores recordings in data centres we know nothing about, and exploits our data for profit . . . It’s a data protection disaster waiting to happen,” Carlo said, as quoted by The London Times.
Amazon told The Times that all data are encrypted and kept confidential and that the service did not share information with third parties or collect data to build customer profiles or make product recommendations.
The news comes three months after Amazon debuted a HIPAA-compliant version of its voice assistant. Unlike the NHS service, which scans the health agency’s website for answers, this version of Alexa allows users to access programs that help with their health needs. The retail and computing giant initially teamed up with six companies to offer programs that can harbor protected prescription information, book doctor appointments, track blood glucose levels and find the nearest urgent care center.