NHS looks to Alexa to deliver health advice

NHS patients may soon have improved access to health information via voice-assisted technology being developed in collaboration with Amazon.

The aim is to help patients, especially the elderly, blind and those who cannot access the internet through traditional means, to get professional, NHS-verified health information using simple voice commands. It is hoped the technology will reduce pressure on the NHS and GPs by providing information for common illnesses.

The technology employs an algorithm that taps into information from the NHS website to provide answers to voice questions such as: "Alexa, how do I treat a migraine?" or "Alexa, what are the symptoms of flu?".

Online voice search is increasing rapidly and by 2020, half of all searches are expected to be made through voice-assisted technology.

Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX – a new government unit set up to drive digital transformation in health and social care – said: "The public need to be able to get reliable information about their health easily and in ways they actually use.

"By working closely with Amazon and other tech companies, big and small, we can ensure that the millions of users looking for health information every day can get simple, validated advice at the touch of a button or voice command."

RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, commented: "This idea is certainly interesting and it has the potential to help some patients work out what kind of care they need before considering whether to seek face-to-face medical help, especially for minor ailments that rarely need a GP appointment, such as coughs and colds that can be safely treated at home.

"NHS Choices (nhs.uk) is already one of the most reliable online sources for health advice, symptom and treatment information, and many people are familiar with voice-assisted technology and feel comfortable using it. Combining the two could be an effective way of accessing information about your health without leaving your home – thereby freeing up more GP appointments for those patients who need them most. However, 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."