Who Will Save Health Care?
According to data provided by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, U.S. healthcare expenditures accounted for a whopping 17.9% of national GDP in 2017. This figure is huge relative to the spending of other nations, representing just how large a part healthcare plays in our economy and everyday lives. But despite the shiny machines and quick-thinking doctors pronouncing lightning-quick diagnoses teased on Grey’s Anatomy or The Resident, today’s healthcare in many ways lags behind. Anyone who has engaged with it to any degree, whether by a run-of-the-mill clinic visit or a lengthy hospital stay, knows that American healthcare system is a complicated beast. Hefty paperwork, difficult scheduling, skyrocketing costs, and shipping delays all play parts in what makes already unpleasant visits worse. To say that the future of American healthcare is bleak, though, would be to overlook the new players in the industry, big and small, who are looking to shake things up.
There exist a variety of new healthcare startups with breathtakingly innovative ideas on how to revamp healthcare in America. However, these are by and large small ventures which will require significant time to leave their marks on the byzantine healthcare market. Enter Amazon (two words that surely frighten the leaders of any industry), Berkshire Hathaway, and J.P. Morgan. On January 30, 2018, the companies announced that they would be pooling their resources to tackle the most pressing healthcare problems facing the U.S. in the 21st century. The firms together have a combined total of over one million employees, and possess considerable resources to spend on what amounts to a test population. It stands to reason that if successful, Amazon would then take its systems forward and deploy them across the country. Healthcare is regulated and complicated to a high degree, but if anyone can enter into a new market and give the regulars a run for their money, it’s Amazon. So what changes are they planning to implement?
To do that, it makes sense to look back and see what Amazon has already done. For starters, the company acquired an online pharmacy, PillPack in June of 2018, and was rumored to be in talks to invest in other similar entities. Amazon has also entered into multiple partnerships over the past couple of years to enable their virtual assistant, Alexa, to make medical appointments, give answers from WebMD, and offer first aid advice. Last October, the firm went so far as to patent an ability for Alexa to detect when a user is sick. Add to that Amazon’s famously advanced computing, web, and logisticial technologies, and you begin to paint a picture of what a successful Amazon foray into healthcare might look like.
Imagine: in a couple of years, there’s an Amazon employee who’s feeling a bit under the weather. The Echo Dot in his home notices he is sick and asks if he would like to schedule a doctor’s appointment at a company-affiliated primary care facility. Thanking Alexa, he answers in the affirmative. Before driving to the doctor’s office, he opens his Amazon health app and notes the projected wait time as he decides that he has time to stop off on an errand. Before he forgets, he remotely checks into his appointment, sending the receptionist his ETA. Upon arrival, the appointment proceeds as usual—minus the much-dreaded wait time. Of course, his medical records and associated paperwork are electronically on file and safely encrypted using Amazon’s services; at most, he is just a few clicks away from satisfying the clinic’s office questions. Afterwards, he pulls up the doctor’s prescription in the health app—typed up, it’s incredibly legible and nearly impossible to lose. He looks it over and decides to order it through Amazon Pharmacy. Within a couple of hours, he is notified that his order’s been shipped and of the time it’ll arrive at his door. He drives home and gets some much-needed rest, comfortable with the knowledge that he will soon have the medicine he needs.
Admittedly, that story may never come to pass—it certainly will take a tremendous effort to make it happen. Most likely, Amazon will limit most of its healthcare provisions to its employees and those of its two partner firms. But even in this future, Amazon will have a foot in the door in healthcare: its online pharmacy. It is the most obvious extension of its existing capabilities as a distributor of goods. In the near future, you might not only buy AmazonBasics batteries, but also their new line of generic painkillers, flu medicine, or one of their many partners’ drugs. While Amazon will undoubtedly have a difficult time with certain regulations and accepting insurance payments, it will provide a valuable service to the growing number of Americans who pay out-of-pocket for their medication.
So to answer this article’s initial question, I would answer tentatively Amazon. It may be that healthcare will be another spectacular flop for Amazon - like its smartphone business- or it could be its next great moneymaker. One thing I can say with near absolute certainty is that several industry players see Amazon’s challenge as a call for them to innovate, or be faced with the very real prospect of losing business. The sudden dip in many of the leading companies’ stock prices whenever Amazon announces a new major healthcare development certainly suggests that investors feel the same way. Change is clearly coming to healthcare, and it’s high time we infused some more 21st century tech into it. And maybe—as has been the case in so many other fields—Amazon will be the company leading the charge.