I WOULD love it if my local surgery embraced new technology.
I don’t mean robotics or artificial intelligence. Just a telephone would do.
2 Amazon’s Alexa will be able to answer owners’ health queries as it links up with the NHS
It would be good to talk to a doctor without having to book an appointment days in advance and drive to the surgery for every consultation.
Of course the NHS should use whatever means it can to modernise and make its services more efficient. But I have grave reservations about the tie-up btween the NHS and Amazon that goes live this week.
If you ask a voice-operated Amazon device about, say, back pain, its Alexa assistant will spout back information courtesy of NHS Choices.
The NHS is providing its medical advice to Amazon for free — in the hope, according to health secretary Matt Hancock, that it will reduce pressure on surgeries and A&E departments.
The theory is that we will be reassured by the information Alexa provides and be less inclined to make unnecessary appointments.
I am not sure Hancock has thought this through.
‘A NATION OF HYPOCHONDRIACS’
Many of us have googled symptoms for years. Far from reducing pressure on the NHS, it seems to have turned us into a nation of hypochondriacs.
Last year we made 307million visits to our GPs — an average of five each, and 15 per cent up in five years. On top of that, we made 23.4million visits to A&E, a rise of 22 per cent over the past decade.
But what bothers me even more is what Amazon will do with the information it collects when, say, we tell Alexa we think we might have piles.
The company says it will “anonymise” all the information it collects from the system, i.e. remove our names so we can’t be identified. But that comes as little reassurance.
It is painfully clear what the company is up to. It wants to collect data on health conditions it can then monetise.
Tell Alexa you have a bad back and that information — along with what millions of other patients tell Alexa — will be put together and used to build a picture of how many people in Britain suffer from a bad back, where they live and what their symptoms are. The data will then be used to target us with marketing for back-pain cures.
It is painfully clear what the company is up to. It wants to collect data on health conditions it can then monetise
It is bad enough the Government is forcing the NHS to help a private company collect data on our health conditions at all. Even worse, why is it co-operating, for free, with a US company that pays a derisory amount of tax in Britain?
In 2017, Amazon made £1.98billion worth of sales to UK consumers — an increase of a third on what it sold to us in 2016. Yet its corporation-tax bill fell from £7.4million to just £4.5million.
There is no suggestion Amazon is breaking the law through tax evasion. But its accountants are extremely clever at minimising its tax liabilities in legal ways.
The Government has even reduced business rates on some of the out-of-town warehouses through which Amazon distributes its goods — while increasing business rates on some of the high street stores through which traditional retailers operate.
If I were Health Secretary and Amazon approached me about using NHS health advice for its products, I would tell it to go away until it was paying the same proportion of corporation tax relative to its turnover as a traditional retailer.
Then, in return for a few billion quid more, I might just consider allowing it access to NHS health advice . . . but even then, only if it could reassure me any data collected in this way would be swiftly destroyed.HARVEST OUR DATA
Matt Hancock, unfortunately, has a starry-eyed attitude to technology.
Having worked for his family’s software business, he tends to see computers as the answer to everything — without always seeing the problems. He even has his own personal app on which you can follow him, if you want to.
Yet as minister for digital, he failed properly to address the behaviour of the internet giants.
After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, he told the likes of Facebook he would “hold their feet to the fire” and threatened new laws.
There are so many simple ways in which the NHS could enhance its services through the use of technology without involving companies such as Amazon
Yet for years beforehand, it was clear to anyone who worked in the technology sector that internet giants were making very liberal use of our data for their own profits.
There are so many simple ways in which the NHS could enhance its services through the use of technology without involving companies such as Amazon access to data on our health.
Last year I had an operation at the very hospital where Matt Hancock launched this Alexa initiative. Rather than allow me to book an appointment through a website — as we have done for years with airlines and theatres, for example — it insisted on sending me a letter through the post giving me a fixed appointment, which I had to ring up about to change.
The NHS already has a reasonable website where you can check your symptoms.
If Hancock wants to reduce the number of GP appointments, why not encourage GPs to help patients contact them via the internet? You needn’t involve Amazon for that.
As so often in the past, the Government has allowed itself to be bamboozled by a powerful tech company on the lookout for ways to harvest our data at minimal cost to itself.
Far from holding Amazon’s feet to the fire, Hancock has invited it to an all-you-can-eat buffet . . . with no charge at all.
2 Matt Hancock has said this technology is an example of how people can access reliable, world-leading NHS adviceCredit: AFP or licensors
Amazon Alexa will be able to help owners with their health problems