How Amazon is working to disrupt healthcare

By Ryan Black
Published September 17, 2021

Key Takeaways

Healthcare offers the challenge and opportunity that big tech companies relish: It’s an industry as profitable as it is antiquated. Amazon is one of the tech giants making major inroads in healthcare, and the company is using a multi-pronged approach to transform the industry.

Though each new move has generated headlines, disruption in healthcare doesn’t happen overnight. But the company’s latest foray may be its most tangible and potentially transformative. According to recent reports, Amazon plans to dramatically scale up its direct-care delivery service, Amazon Care. 

Originally available to its own employees and then in select test markets, the program will soon launch in 20 new major cities, including Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. The ambitious program seeks to introduce a new patient experience—and eventually hire a lot of doctors. 

So, what will this mean for physicians and patients? And will doctors and health systems have to change how they practice to meet new patient demands created by Amazon? 

It’s like Amazon Prime for healthcare

At first blush, Amazon appears to get its might from its status as the world’s largest online retailer. But these days, it is ultimately a massive logistics, cloud technology, and analytics company. Those capabilities perpetuate its retail dominance and also give it the potential to revolutionize other industries.

The Amazon Prime delivery trucks that crawl across the country are one example. Bypassing the old middlemen of shipping, Amazon gives Prime members precisely what they want as soon as possible. Those subscribers can also watch exclusive content and get special discounted prices, all while Amazon’s huge data operation churns out more personalized recommendations and learns how to route shipments more quickly.

The same principles that underpin Prime could be transformative for healthcare. The company’s expertise in speed, consumer loyalty, and scalability could make Amazon Care a beacon for lightning-fast care delivered directly to people’s homes. Writing for Healthcare IT News, digital health expert Paddy Padmanabhan likened the program to “Amazon Prime same-day delivery on steroids.” 

Telehealth is a growing sector, due to its convenience and the pandemic, but Amazon Care promises far more than one-off visits with remote physicians. Sure, it offers to connect members with a clinician within 60 seconds of their request, day or night. But it ups the ante by also offering patients a full-fledged at-home care experience from locally licensed physicians and nurses.

Amazon Care will deploy those workers through Care Medical, a legally distinct but Amazon-owned medical practice that first served its employees in Washington state before applying for licenses in 17 additional states earlier this year. The aim is reportedly to have Amazon Care services in 20 new markets by the end of 2022, and many even sooner.

“You’ll continue to see familiar faces when you visit with us for your ongoing care,” the Amazon Care site says, portraying an effort to provide the personalized, holistic care team that patients cherish. Patients can receive tests, diagnoses, and treatments from real providers without the drive to their physician’s office or hospital—rendering those the middlemen, in this case. For doctors, the future of medicine may actually be a return to the house calls of the past.

Right now, the program is aimed at employers as a cutting-edge, cost-controlled benefits offering. In the new work-from-home world, Padmanabhan believes this new direct delivery model may be more appealing to companies and workers.

Amazon Care is part of a larger picture 

Neither telehealth nor home visits are new, and many traditional providers offer both. But no healthcare provider possesses the sprawling resources and scalability that Amazon brings—and that’s before mentioning its numerous other healthcare projects and collaborations. 

Remote patient monitoring will be a key part of the new care-at-home ecosystem, and Amazon already has technology prowess and ongoing projects that could make it a major player there, too. Its Alexa voice assistant boasts a growing repertoire of healthcare applications, and last year saw the release of Amazon Halo, the company’s own fitness tracker and accompanying application.

As for prescriptions, Amazon already has those covered. In 2018, it bought Pillpack, a novel company that delivers prescriptions to patients’ doorsteps, in individually packaged doses with clear instructions to encourage proper medication adherence. In 2020, Amazon launched Amazon Pharmacy, uniting its newfound pharmaceutical distribution capabilities with the membership loyalty benefits of Prime. 

Driving this new Amazon healthcare ecosystem forward will be data. Amazon Web Services is already a goliath in data management, facilitating countless big-name players in the healthcare industry and opening the door for future collaboration and innovation through its newly launched healthcare accelerator.

With its impressive analytics capabilities turned toward consumer health habits, some experts believe that Amazon could leverage its data collection through Halo, Alexa, and Amazon Care to push consumers toward healthier decisions. 

“Amazon could suggest food, vitamins, over-the-counter medication and other related products that could help consumers manage their health,” a recent analysis from Huron Consulting Group says. “In some cases, these recommendations could be for products the customers don’t know they need.” 

Combining remote monitoring, telehealth, prescription drugs, in-person care visits, and preventive products affords Amazon the unique opportunity to build the most robust, all-inclusive personalized care service that the industry has ever seen.

Disrupting healthcare won’t be easy

Still, resources and ambition aren’t enough to upset the complicated and ever-changing balance of US healthcare. Amazon has already stumbled along the way.

In 2018, the company made major waves by linking with finance behemoths JP Morgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway to launch Haven, a healthcare solutions company that never truly defined its vision. Despite initial fanfare that sent stock prices for legacy healthcare companies tumbling, it quietly sailed through 3 years of executive turnover before closing its doors in early 2021.

And while Amazon’s lauded data capabilities and analytics insights could be revolutionary, they will also need to be safe and supported by evidence.

During the ongoing pandemic, for example, Amazon’s search algorithms promoted ivermectin, a deworming drug falsely touted as a cure for COVID-19. When users typed “iv” in the Amazon search bar, the website recommended the drug and steered users to product pages littered with reviews either incorrectly or sarcastically declaring ivermectin a wonder cure. 

Amazon soon added a cautionary notice on ivermectin product pages, but it was not the first time during the pandemic that the world’s largest store raised eyebrows. Throughout the outbreak, Amazon has battled books and products pushing misinformation that have continued to proliferate on the platform.

These missteps have massive implications for patients. At scale, the potential for damage increases. Time will tell whether Amazon is up to the task of delivering safe, effective care in an industry that has a reputation for stonewalling incumbents and would-be disrupters alike.

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