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Why Amazon's Alexa won't be replacing doctors any time soon

From today, Britons will be able to medical queries from the NHS using their Amazon smart speaker
From today, Britons will be able to medical queries from the NHS using their Amazon smart speaker Credit: Daniel Berman/Bloomberg

"Alexa, what are the symptoms of food poisoning?"

From today, in a world first, Britons will be able to get answers to this and other medical queries from the NHS using their Amazon smart speakers. 

That’s welcome news for doctors such as me who are tired of bad medical advice appearing online.

But there’s a problem - Amazon’s smart assistant, Alexa, won’t work for everyone. Anyone with a regional accent could struggle to use the service, and women are more likely to be misheard by voice assistants such as Alexa than men. 

As a result, asking Alexa questions could create misunderstandings for the vast majority of the population. Obviously when you’re talking about medical diagnosis, this is a serious consideration.

The human touch

 Another issue arises when Alexa is viewed as a treatment tool, which it isn't. 

Technology can be brilliant, but it needs to be used appropriately. This partnership is certainly interesting, and it has the potential to relieve pressure on an overstretched GP service.

 However, we should not be encouraging patients to solely rely on an algorithm-driven device to diagnose and consecutively treat themselves . 

 This is particularly true for the treatment of chronic illnesses which require patients to make long-term lifestyle changes. Type 2 diabetes is one of the biggest healthcare challenges of our time. 

 Diabetes and its complications cost the NHS over £10 billion every year to treat, with one in six patients in hospital now having diabetes. 

 There is strong evidence that the onset of Type 2 diabetes can be prevented or delayed in those at high risk through improved quality of diet, an increase in physical activity and successful weight loss. 

Although Alexa can advise a patient how to make these lifestyle changes, how will it make sure that the patient adheres to them? 

Where health-tech works best

Where health-tech can be most effective is when used as the facilitator – providing doctors with the tools to communicate with patients remotely and monitor far more patients at once. 

In the future, smart speakers such as Amazon’s Echo have huge potential to revolutionise healthcare. 

Just last month, for instance, researchers at the University of Washington revealed that smart speakers could detect the tell-tale gasping for air that occurs during cardiac arrest, known as agonal breathing.

As digital natives, technology is the key to facilitating a relationship between patient and practitioner. However, it’s important that digital health doesn’t get too digital.

Healthcare professionals should never be replaced by apps or algorithms, instead relationships should be enhanced and facilitated through technology.

Patients should always bear in mind that Alexa is not giving them specific individual information tailored to them, but instead providing a generic reply based on algorithms and known medical data on various conditions. 

The advice is a simple one here - if in doubt, get checked out by a human.

Dr Roger Henderson is a GP and medical director of Liva Healthcare