Unite has raised concerns after health secretary Matt Hancock announced the start of a new partnership between the NHS and Alexa, Amazon’s voice activated device.
The partnership will mean that from today (July 10) patients can ask Alexa for health advice, which will be pulled up straight from the health service’s official website.
But Unite and others are worried that the Alexa service could render patients’ personal health data vulnerable and that it could dissuade patients from going to their GP when they need to. Unite has also lambasted the government partnering with a company notorious for its tax dodging practices and poor treatment of staff.
In an interview this morning on the Victoria Derbyshire programme, Hancock extolled the virtues of the new partnership, saying the Alexa service “had the potential to reduce pressure on GPs”.
When Derbyshire highlighted the fears users may have over their data being held by Amazon and potentially used for commercial purposes, Hancock insisted it was safe.
But only last week, Amazon admitted that it continues to hold Alex data even after users have deleted their audio files and the company would not explain why.
Hancock referenced GP at Hand, the app-based GP service he uses, which Unite has previously criticised, as another example of the NHS harnessing technology to improve patient care.
But the Royal College of GPs urged caution, with the RCGP chairwoman Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard noting, “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.
“While some patients might want to use symptom-checkers in this way, not everyone will be happy to do so and many people will not be able to afford the expense of this equipment, thus widening health inequalities and making access to care even harder for some of the most vulnerable people in our society,” she said.
Doctors in Unite (DiU) chair Jackie Applebee agreed.
“Just as with the GP at Hand, Alexa dispensing medical advice is not an evidence-based technology,” she said. “While we would welcome any steps to use technology to better serve patients, adoption of such technology must undergo rigorous independent research. What may at first glance appear to be a convenient and informative tool may in practice have unintended outcomes, such as patients failing to seek proper medical advice.”
“It is also worrying that the NHS has partnered with Amazon, a corporate giant that pays virtually no tax in the UK and has an appalling record of treating its workforce poorly. The health secretary’s uncritical embrace of the GP at Hand app, which is financed by a company that has links to NHS privatisation, shows exactly where his priorities lie.”