Alexa, privacy and the role of personal data in health technology

There has been a bit of a furore recently about the news that Amazon’s Alexa has partnered with the NHS, and will be offering health advice via voice search.

In the UK, what was NHS Choices, now, is a trusted source of information when people have health concerns, and enabling a greater number of people to access that, in whatever way best suits them, is clearly desirable.

There is certainly an argument that medical professionals, not search engines, are the best source of accurate advice and diagnosis in individual cases. In reality, however, people often turn to search engines such as Google first, and that behaviour is unlikely to change.

Google has responded to this by trying to be sensitive and providing local and relevant information. If you ask Google what vaccinations a baby should have in England, for example, it showcases an NHS link on the childhood vaccines timeline.

Additionally, NHS Choices has long made its content available for syndication so that no matter what app or service an individual used, it could be made available and reused in that service.

Asking Alexa for health advice, therefore, is not that different to searching Google or asking NHS Choices directly.

Yes, there are some existing privacy issues when it comes to online services, including social media and Alexa itself, which may give people more pause for thought than more innocuous use of voice assistants, such as requesting weather updates or historical facts. But, ultimately, individuals will decide what suits their own personal circumstances.

Fundamentally, it is all about getting the right information to the right people at the right time to engage them in their health, answer any queries they may have and help them make informed and consented choices about the services they use.

There is certainly a wider role for individuals to play in proactively managing their own health and digital health technology will play a key supporting role. What we are seeing today is just the start of this journey.

If we can start by empowering individuals with their health in this way, then the next step is to start looking at how we can use technology to reduce the burden on healthcare services and keep people healthier and happier.

The Alexa-NHS link in its current form is little more than a fancy search engine. The real opportunity will come in the future when Artificial Intelligence (AI) is able to understand the individual and provide even more contextualised and relevant advice.

Imagine – you could bring all your data together as an individual and then use technology to get insights and advice personalised to you. The opportunities for prevention, early detection and more personal health services are potentially huge.

For this to happen, technology such as AI and machine learning will inevitably require access to individuals’ most personal information. Transparency and trust will be critical to this, and the individual’s informed consent will be essential.

However, if we empower individuals directly with their data they’ll be able to take advantage of technology locally on their own devices, obtaining a high level of personalised service, without the need for organisations such as Google or the NHS having to hold all their data.

Instead of data disappearing into ‘the cloud’, it could be held locally, drawing down content and services from the NHS and other organisations, to obtain personalised services. The difference with the person-centric approach is that, ultimately, this enables individuals to get maximum use of their data while maintaining complete privacy.

Many are now working towards this decentralised world with technology innovation leaders such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee (creator of the World Wide Web) talking publicly about their mission to enable a decentralised web and restore individuals’ control over personal data.

In the UK, has recently joined the likes of Barclays, the BBC, BT, Centrica and Facebook in the Ctrl-Shift Data Mobility Sandbox project. One of the leading conclusions which came out of this was that “Much of the infrastructure and capabilities required for safe data sharing already exists. Significant in this are the services provided by data facilitators, in helping individuals share and gain value from their data whilst controlling it securely”

Given the rate of progress and the available technology, this is not a vision for some distant future. In fact this what is enabling today with our unique private sharing API/SDK with connections to 1,000s of data sources and hundreds of healthcare providers in multiple countries, including the UK and US.

Want to find out more about our work in this area?