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“We need a respectful, mutual listening, free of ideology and predetermined agendas.” Pope Francis, Let us Dream, December 2020

Alexa: Tell me why asking you about my health is wrong…

A Catholic medic has raised concerns over Amazon’s Alexa offering expert health advice following a partnership between the technology company and the NHS.

Until now, people asking Alexa a health question would be given an answer based on a variety of popular responses.

But a new partnership with the NHS means 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, especially the elderly, blind and those who are unable to access the internet in other ways, take more control of their healthcare and help reduce the burden on the NHS.

However, Dr Dermott Kearney, president of the Catholic Medical Association (CMA) (UK), admitted that he has concerns over the initiative.

“This move ought to be met with a great deal of scepticism, and an acknowledgement that providing helpful information by a variety of different means might provide some benefit to some users,” Dr Kearney told The Catholic Universe.

His main concern relates to the over enthusiastic use of IT in the health services in general.

“In recent years, I have witnessed many technological changes in the NHS… most are a disaster, resulting in slowing down of service provision, longer waiting times for patients and reduction in quality of services,” he said.

Dr Kearney also admitted that there is a concern that the promotion of Alexa and its use in offering health advice “could become an excuse not to employ more nurses and doctors as it will be perceived by some ‘decision-makers’ that this new gadget will replace the need for hiring more healthcare professionals”.

“Technology can never replace the human touch that only trained personnel can provide,” he warned.

“Medicine is an art and a science. It is not simply a tool for receiving information, processing it and passing on clinical responses to clients or service users. Each patient is a unique individual and deserves to be treated with care, compassion, empathy and understanding unique to their particular situation. A computer cannot provide that level of care.”

Dr Kearney pointed out that every doctor is aware that even the interpretation of a single, apparently simple symptom, such as headache or chest discomfort, often requires a great deal of deliberation and consideration. “Alexa will not be able to rise to the challenges that healthcare professionals constantly face. At best, it could be considered as another technological toy that can provide some fun and entertainment but otherwise shouldn’t be taken too seriously,” he added.

Despite his warnings, however, the Royal College of GPs welcomed the move, but warned that independent research must be carried out to ensure the advice given is safe, while privacy campaigners Big Brother Watch said the move was a “data protection disaster waiting to happen”.

Picture: A general view of an Amazon Echo smart speaker alongside an ear thermometer and some pills. (Andrew Matthews/PA).