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"Alexa, my symptoms are…"

17 July 2019. Published by Chloe Scott, Trainee Solicitor

It has been announced that Amazon's Alexa, in cooperation with the NHS, will now be able to give people in the UK medical advice from the NHS website.

Amazon recently announced a new partnership with the NHS.  In a move hailed as a global first, Amazon's voice assistant, Alexa, will provide NHS-backed advice to its users. The NHS has commented that it hopes this collaboration will ease pressure on GPs, and other healthcare workers.

The amalgamation of healthcare and artificial intelligence is a relatively new, but rapidly growing idea. The market is predicted to surpass $8 billion (£6.39 billion) by 2026. The consumer-oriented section of this market brings with it numerous benefits; for example, it allows users to monitor their calorie intake, track stress levels, and assess health symptoms. .

The announcement that Alexa will be providing NHS advice is a huge step forward in this market. When a user reports their symptoms to Alexa, the device will search the NHS website and provide information on the possible causes of the symptoms, actions that could be taken at home, and whether it is necessary to seek expert help. This development could help to ease the burden on GPs, especially in light of falling GP numbers.

While the advantages are numerous, there are also a number of potential risks. Two of the most significant questions are: (i) who is liable in case of medical negligence?; and (ii) what protection is there for user privacy?

In terms of liability, the potential risks may be relatively small in circumstances where a consumer simply relays Alexa's findings to a doctor. However, the risks associated with the use of such devices substantially increase if a worried user decides to self-medicate. Previous case law concerning the NHS's 111 service suggests that liability could lie with the NHS. However, in circumstances where an NHS operator is effectively replaced by a device, liability could arguably fall on the product manufacturer, which could open the floodgates for product liability claims.

As for user privacy, there is already growing public concern that tech companies hold too much of our private data. Amazon treats all information collected with high confidentiality, and uses encryption and a multi-factor authentication to restrict access. Nevertheless, the risk remains of private data making its way into the public domain, due to the increasing number of cyber-attacks occurring across industries. It is therefore vital that cyber-security is a primary focus for investment in order to protect user privacy.