A conversation with Alexa about public involvement in health – ‘Sorry, I don’t know that one.’ #digitalPPI

Privacy campaigners have reacted with concern to the announcement by Health Secretary, Matt ‘Prime Membership’ Hancock, that the NHS and Amazon have done a deal to provide health advice through its Alexa smart speakers.

The concerns need addressing although I feel a lot more chilled out about it than some of the things Alexa already has access too. After all, what could be more revealing, embarrassing, and potentially stigmatising than the back catalogue in your music collection? I am sure Alexa laughs at some of my choices. Seriously. I’ve heard it in her voice.

Plus if Amazon was to team up with anyone I would much rather it was with the NHS than anyone else. Just ask the patient advocates who have raised a pen and eyebrow over the deal in the USA which has seen one of its major insurers – United Health Group – acquire PatientsLikeMe.

Personally, speaking some help from Alexa this week might have saved me a wasted trip to my local GP surgery, enabled me to put in a repeat prescription, sorted out a consultant’s appointment in September that I can’t make, and helped me find a suitable treatment for eating too much pizza. Life would have been easier that’s for sure.

Nonetheless, I acknowledge there are potential downsides to Alexa’s involvement in providing health information (but, terrifying, really?) and that our Health Minister’s tigger view of tech in health is sometimes just an ‘r’ away from triggering something a lot less helpful than it could be.

Anyway, that said, I thought i would check out Alexa’s public involvement credentials and had a conversation with her this morning (well, I’m home alone this week!) about all things ‘PPI.’ I am a bit underwhelmed if honest. This is how our tete-a-tech went.

Me: Alexa, what is patient and public involvement in health research?

Alex: Sorry, I don’t know that one.

Me: Alexa, it wasn’t a joke.

Alexa: <silence>

Me: Alexa what is PPI?

Alexa: PPI is an abbreviation for Proton-Pump Inhibitor

Me: Alexa, are you sure?

Alexa: <silence>

Me: Alexa, are patients always right?

Alexa: Mmmm, I’m not sure?

Me: Now we are both unsure. Alexa, tell me about the top ten research priorities in diabetes?

Alexa: Sorry, I don’t know that one.

Me: Alexa, can you recommend a website where I can find out about clinical trials.

Alexa: I don’t have any tips for that yet. But there are a lot of tips I do know about. Try asking me about tips on gardening, travel and back-packing. Is that helpful?

Me: No

Alexa: Thanks for your feedback.

Me: Have you heard of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)?

Alexa: The is the largest clinical research funder in Europe with an annual budget of £1billion in 2015/2016.

Me: Alexa do you collect data on me?

Alexa: By default, I only send audio back to Amazon when I hear you say ‘Alexa.’ For more information visit the help section of the Alexa app.

Me: ‘expletive’

Me: Alexa would you like to join my patient advisory group?

Alexa: I don’t have an opinion on that.

Clearly, I have some work to do. But it is Friday so let’s look on the bright side. At least we can programme Alexa to do the right thing unlike some of the real people we work with.

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