The NHS has today launched a new partnershop with Amazon’s Alexa in a bid to reduce the pressure on hardworking GPs and pharmacists.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed that Alexa will now give answers based on information from the health service website, which has been verified by health professionals.
The plan is to help patients take more control of their healthcare and help reduce the burden on the NHS, but outsourcing the work of GPs and health professionals to a speaking search engine could risk doing the exact opposite.
Dr Google and hypochondria
Dr Google and hypochondria have become synonymous of late, with research last year revealing that searches for serious health conditions have increased by thousands of percentage points over the last three years.
UK search volumes for terms such as ‘how to know chest pains are serious’ have risen by 8,781 per cent from 2015 to 2018, analysis of Google data found, and searches for keywords such as ‘sciatica’, ‘acne’ and ‘IBS’ plus ‘treatment’ are now searched over 100,000 times on average every year since 2015.
While that may be OK for minor ailments like coughs and colds, one thing search results can’t do is rule out everything, which often leads to more serious conditions being associated with minor complications.
More pressure on overstretched GP service
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, urged caution, saying: “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.
“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.
“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.
“Patients who are frail often have more complex healthcare needs so it is important that they do not rely on this as their sole source of health advice.”