The latest in the NHS’ ‘digital first’ effort in the Long Term Plan is to add Amazon Alexa’s voice search capability to the NHS’ online advice service. Using Amazon’s search algorithm, UK users will be able to ask Alexa about their scratchy throat, sneezing, flu symptoms, or headache with information sourced from the NHS website. In the announcement, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock said that “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.” 50 million GP consultations each year are estimated to be unnecessary; the NHS is actively campaigning for patient awareness on self-care to reduce the patient load on practices (GP). NHSX is also planning of making more NHS services available to all patients through digital technology.
Physicians have expressed concern that what seems to be a minor symptom could be the start of something big, like an underlying illness. For instance, heart rate monitors which are present in smartwatches and gym equipment have driven many to their doctor because of normal heart rate fluctuations, but that visit could be also picking up the early symptoms of atrial fibrillation.
The Alexa voice assistant adoption by the NHS makes search information more accessible for those with limited mobility or sight, which can help them feel more connected and enhance safety. It also assumes that internet is both available, affordable, and understandable by these users.
This Editor wonders if Alexa will have an emergency feature which calls for assistance or to a GP if the user indicates a worsening condition or is in distress. Voice recognition, as Readers know, is imperfect; Alexa may be puzzled by regional accents, phrasing, or speech impediments.
Current estimates on voice search fluctuate. The oft-repeated ’50 percent by 2020′ assumes an accuracy in digital voice recognition and Alexa/Echo/Android/Siri usage and sales that at this stage are simply not there. An excellent discussion of the voice search market that cuts through the hyped-up predictions is by Rebecca Sentance on the eConsultancy website.