Catch a little cold, get a little migraine, and we’re off to check WebMD

We’re all guilty of it — googling our symptoms — instead of getting a doctor’s appointment. Well, Amazon took it one step further.

United Kingdom users may now ask health advice for Amazon’s Alexa as the Department of Health announced Amazon’s partnership with the National Health Services (NHS). 

Alexa will have access to the NHS Choices website for when users list down their symptoms. According to the Department of Health in England, the partnership will help in reducing the demand from NHS. 

According to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, one of the goals of the partnership is to lessen the pressure on its GPs and pharmacists. It also aims to encourage patients to take better control of their healthcare. 

He also emphasized that the new technology does not encourage patients to do away with doctor’s appointments. It’s still important that patients see their General Practitioners (GPs) if that’s what’s necessary for them.

“At the moment, there are people all over the country, who already turn to Alexa for medical advice. At the moment, they just get whatever the internet throws at them. In the future, because of this collaboration, they’ll get NHS advice,” Hancock says during an interview in Sky News.

A report from The Verge has confirmed that UK’s Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) welcomed the idea. However, it emphasized the need for an independent body to verify that Alexa is providing the best advice.

RCGP chairwoman Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard says, “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.”

The move to integrate with Alexa is another step to accommodating voice search technology in users’ lives. Since the launch of Apple’s Siri, voice search has become the norm. According to The Telegraph, experts predict that 50% of internet searches will be done using voice-assisted technology by 2020. 

Before this team-up, Alexa gathers medical responses based on popular searches from the internet. There’s also a WebMD Alexa skill that users can enable, which would scour the pages of WebMD for any medical-related question. 

Data Privacy Issues

Some concerns have been raised related to Amazon, an e-commerce giant, having access to medical files from NHS. One of which is Data Privacy. Two scenarios of data privacy leaks can be identified. One is a leak from NHS files directly, and another is a leak of users’ information whenever they use Alexa. 

Big Brother Watch, a civil liberty group, shared criticisms about the partnership. According to the organization’s director, Silkie Carlo, “it’s a data protection disaster waiting to happen.”

Each patient is protected by the physician-patient privilege that allows for medical confidentiality for any communication between a patient and his or her doctor. Thus, if a third party organization has access to records of NHS personal medical data, it may be more prone to hacking leading to the leakage of said data. 

Health Secretary Hancock defended the data privacy speculations in an interview with Sky News. Hancock reminded everyone that there are privacy rules in place to ensure the patient’s data will not be used for commercial reasons. 

Amazon supported Hancock’s defense. According to a report in The Times, Amazon reiterated that it does not share information with third parties, nor does it create a profile of its Alexa users. 

“All data was encrypted and kept confidential. Customers are in control of their voice history and can review or delete recordings,” an Amazon spokesman shared. 

Self-Diagnosis and Cyberchondria

Aside from Data Privacy issues, another concern that comes with the convenience of getting medical advice from Alexa is the possible increase of people getting cyberchondria among its users. 

Cyberchondria, sometimes known as compuchondria, is one’s escalation of concerns based on googling one’s symptom. 

According to Kelli Harding, a health anxiety psychiatrist and an assistant professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, “cyberchondria is the new frontier of hypochondria.”

One type of user that’s most prone with cyberchondria is first-time mothers. Worrisome mothers often Google their child’s symptoms the fear that bothering pediatricians with their million questions will eventually lead to doctors’ brushing off their concerns. Googling the symptoms often aggravates the mother’s anxiety and does not help with that situation.

Another concern is that users of the Alexa-NHS collaboration project will make the users too independent and rely on self-diagnosis. 

To which, Hancock reiterates, “You, of course, always need to be able to see your GP face-to-face if that’s what you want [and] if that’s what’s necessary; but let’s use the technology, too.”

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