NHSX & Alexa: A power couple, but with reputational pitfalls for both

NHSX announced its first big initiative late last week and they didn't go small - it's a partnership with Amazon's Alexa, the tech giant's AI-powered voice assistant.

NHSX should be praised for embracing the tech revolution, argues Jessi Langsen
NHSX should be praised for embracing the tech revolution, argues Jessi Langsen

No-one loves a power couple like the communications industry and health is no different, particularly when one is a cornerstone institution and the other is a digital and logistical juggernaut leaning heavily, if still mysteriously, into healthcare.

As exciting as the announcement is, and make no mistake our Slack channel was aflame, there are a few considerations the discussion prompted.

Accessibility

This cuts to both as a big opportunity and a challenge. The project is billed as helping people not easily able to look up health information on their own to get advice from a reliable resource. Alexa-enabled systems are becoming increasingly affordable, but the technology itself is still largely used by middle- and upper-class households. It’s a safe bet that this is changing, but for now, this service will likely be used by a portion of the population who already have access to reliable health information.

Privacy

Voice-activated systems have come under fair scrutiny for privacy concerns. Now we are encouraging people to make health queries, potentially the most personal kind. Patient confidentiality plays a huge role in the safety and efficacy of the population the NHS system. Adding an NHS stamp of approval to a third party, AI or otherwise, for receiving health queries merits a more robust set of proof points and assurances from Amazon than those laid out in the initial announcement. The consequences would be particularly serious - because the NHS pursued this particular vulnerability - on top of the disastrous fallout that follows any kind of compromised medical data. Amazon has momentum on its side and there’s no question that the under-funded health service has more to lose in public trust and beyond.

Self-Care

No, I’m not talking about face masks, but actual management of personal health at an individual level outside of the doctor’s office – what we can do ourselves to stay healthy proactively. Technology-enabled healthcare is transforming the industry end to end. If partnerships like this one can improve health literacy for regular families in the UK and give people a new tool to manage their wellbeing and contributing decisions, that is a really good thing. The potential to redirect doctor and nurse time to the critically ill, to reduce the economic burden of chronic illness on crippled health systems, to educate appropriately on how to manage pain, or when you really need to see a doctor – all of this is a huge step forward for people and systems navigating a new future of health.

But why not test it first? A pilot would also communicate reassurance to the NHS’s own HCPs that this sort of splash would help to solve a problem without creating several new ones.

In the end, it passes my own team’s gut-check in that it doesn’t appear to be tech for tech’s sake (shiny, rather than useful) and it leans on a growing existing behaviour, which means it’s likely to actually find an audience.

My main takeaway is that if the NHS choice is to evolve or die, this represents evolution and for that, NHSX should be praised.

Jessi Langsen is head of content and publishing in H+K UK’s Healthcare practice

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