Amazon’s NHS Vision: Tech giant makes move into the healthcare market

September 5, 2019

2 min read

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What's going on here?

News about the collaboration between the NHS and Amazon, through its Alexa devices, broke on the 10th of July.

What does this mean?

NHSX, the organisation overseeing the collaboration, hopes to help those who cannot easily search for health advice on the internet (e.g. those who are elderly, blind, have difficulties with mobility, etc.) by having access to reliable information through voice search from home. The Department of Health hopes it will relieve pressure on the NHS, however, concerns have been made about the conflicting values of the NHS and Amazon and data protection. This concern has been heightened after news of Siri recording doctor-patient conversations amongst others (see our article on that here).

What's the big picture effect?

The conflicting nature of the two groups seems to suggest there will be a conflict of aims. Amazon, as a company, aims to increase profits whereas the NHS, a public health service, does not. Concerns have been voiced that, with digital tech beginning to revolutionise healthcare, NHS funding will be cut and a window of opportunity will open up for private companies to become the alternative. However, it is likely that digital healthcare providers would work in partnership, such as Babylon Health, to optimise rather than replace. 


“Prime Health” is emerging as a near reality as the tech giant paid close to $1 billion last June for PillPack, an online pharmacy with sales of over $100 million in 2017, and rolled out its services in April 2019. Amazon also launched Amazon Comprehend Medical last year, the cloud software that utilises machine learning to extract information to provide insights from medical data. Applications for Alexa to manage blood sugar readings, health goals, and booking appointments are also reportedly underway.


The potential data Amazon will have on its customers gives rise to possibilities such as easier access to medication, giving Alexa the ability to book your appointments and automatically reorder medication when supplies are low, and provide personalised health advice.  


However, the increased efficiency and support may not be completely healthy. It raises the question, can such arrangements be trusted? Amazon promises to encrypt data for those who ask Alexa for health advice. Despite this, Luxembourg’s National Commission for Data Protection voiced concerns last month about the tech giant’s use of manual human reviews of Alexa voice recordings. This does not breed confidence. 


With the GDPR in effect, other tech companies venturing into healthcare (e.g. Apple with its new Health Records feature) will have to take considerable care to comply with measures to avoid the fate of London’s Royal Free Hospital in 2017, where the hospital mishandled the data of 1.6 million patients to Google’s DeepMind while developing an early diagnosis system.

Report written by Heerim Hwang

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