News Briefs Archive

Why Amazon’s Alexa May Soon Be Fielding More Patient Questions

By July 24, 2019

Amazon recently announced a new feature that allows British users of its Alexa digital assistant to ask for medical advice, with answers provided by Britain’s National Health Service, according to reporting by David Lazarus of the Los Angeles Times.

American Alexa users already can receive general health information from the likes of WebMD and the Mayo Clinic. But Amazon’s deal with Britain’s state-run NHS appears to be more treatment-oriented, and raises the possibility of similar U.S. tie-ups with Medicare, private insurers or hospital chains, Lazarus writes.

“It’s the brave new world of unimagined consequences of new technologies,” Anita Cava, a law professor at the University of Miami, told Lazarus.

She told him that HIPAA never anticipated a scenario in which people would willingly disclose confidential medical information to a private company via a voice-activated computer in their living room. “HIPAA doesn’t apply to Amazon in this situation,” she said. “Amazon has no relationship with Alexa users as a health-care provider. The company theoretically could do almost anything with that information.”

An Amazon spokeswoman in Britain, requesting that her name be withheld, said of the NHS deal that “all information is treated with high confidentiality.”

“Amazon is not sharing any of this information with third parties,” she told Lazarus, “nor is it selling products or making product recommendations based on this health information, nor is it building a health profile on customers.”

Britain’s NHS, the country’s main healthcare provider, says its link to Alexa can provide fast answers to questions such as “Alexa, what are the symptoms of chicken pox?”

Lazarus asked the Amazon spokeswoman if the company intends to use information gleaned from user questions in Britain for possible online drug sales.

“There are no plans to do that,” she replied — an answer that Lazarus notes doesn’t quite reject such a prospect.

Kerry Hall, an Amazon spokeswoman based at the company’s Seattle headquarters, said of the NHS arrangement that “we’re always looking for ways to add more information to Alexa’s knowledge graph, and this is just another example of that.”

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