A Look at Amazon’s Many Ventures Into Medicine — Part 2

November 25, 2020 - 8 minutes read

medical app developerWith Amazon’s recent announcement of opening the doors to a digital pharmacy with lower costs for prescriptions, there’s a feeling of anticipation and mystery around what the company will do next in the medical and healthcare industries. Amazon has made its interest in healthcare and pharmacy well-known with the acquisition of PillPack and the roll-out of Amazon Care at its Seattle headquarters. But the company has also developed new initiatives, like Haven, medical “skills” with Alexa, and its new pharmacy.

In our last Amazon post about its medical and healthcare strategy, we covered the successes and potential improvements of PillPack and Amazon Care. If you missed it, you can check it out here. In this second and final post of the Amazon healthcare series, we’ll dive into Comprehend Medical, Alexa, Haven, and the ramifications of data and privacy.

Amazon’s Comprehend Medical

Comprehend Medical is an extension of Amazon Web Services, and it’s just as much an artificial intelligence (AI) application as it is a MedTech one. The technology focuses on the comprehension of electronic medical records, which are notoriously complex, rich with years of patient history, and more focused on insurance billing than clinical analysis and data capture. Not only does Amazon offer transcription services that map the patient’s data into the appropriate field, but it also standardizes the healthcare data along the way so that medical clients can easily access and use the data.

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The technology also uses AI to study imaging files and find possible abnormalities. However, because the AI algorithms are being developed for specific cases and diseases, the imaging portion of the technology is slower-moving.

Amazon’s Haven Collaboration

As opposed to Amazon Care’s potential to become the newest trend of corporate healthcare offerings, Haven is a little more elevated in potential and theory. The Haven service was launched in early 2018 as a collaboration between Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase. The companies named Oxford- and Stanford-educated Atul Gawande, M.D., which further elevated expectations of the venture.

But, in May, Gawande stepped down as CEO, dealing a big blow to the Haven collaboration. Haven’s self-proclaimed goal on its website is to undertake “commonsense fixes as well as innovative approaches” to healthcare access for patients, easier-to-understand insurance benefits, and more affordable prescription drugs. The company’s strategy is to use technology and data to improve the “overall healthcare system”. It’s unclear what exact technologies the company is using, what exactly they’re tackling, and what changes they want to exact upon the healthcare system. Recently, Haven partnered with Cigna and Aetna to offer employees at JPMorgan healthcare plans with increased transparency in pricing.

Alexa’s Medical Skills

Amazon partnered with Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield to create a program in 12 states for members to use Amazon Alexa smart assistants to refill prescriptions, answer insurance-related questions about deductibles and claims, and schedule appointments. Rajeev Ronanki is Anthem’s chief digital officer. Ronanki says the goal is to “simplify the experience for our members.”

The service was first introduced in 2018 by Anthem for informational questions, like giving the user the nearest doctor’s or pharmacy’s information without collecting identifying data about the user. When Amazon became HIPAA-certified in 2019, however, Anthem became interested in further pushing the boundaries of what Alexa can do for its members. Across the Atlantic, Britain’s National Health Service signed up with Amazon to use Alexa to provide general health information and guidance in 2019.

Privacy and Data Concerns

Amazon’s an enormous company with a lot of data about our browsing habits, shopping behavior, and likes and dislikes. By dipping its hands into healthcare, we encounter an unspoken understanding that one company will have more varied information and diverse data points about us than ever before. How is Amazon using the data they’ve accumulated? For patients using Alexa through the National Health Service, the company said they were not creating health profiles or using the health information about each patient to recommend products.

However, the devices have been shown to send recordings to Amazon without the user’s consent. Amazon also keeps the recordings to use for training its AI algorithm. According to Ronanki, however, Alexa isn’t retaining any member information, and that caveat is in “our contract.” Alexa does verify the user’s voice for authentication purposes.

Without the healthcare data, Amazon can still use the learnings from these ventures to develop customized medical applications for other organizations. For example, Amazon can use information about British patients as learnings to apply to another partnership. Some experts, on the other hand, worry about using healthcare data for marketing purposes, especially for patients who have Medicare Advantage.

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Amazon’s Ongoing Healthcare Strategy

To become a big player in healthcare, Amazon has to work with the entrenched companies, and this becomes increasingly challenging as insurance and healthcare companies are consolidating to build bigger market shares. Adding the pandemic into the mix, healthcare innovation has accelerated particularly for patient experience and convenience. And more concerningly, the federal government has relaxed its rules and regulations on healthcare and insurance companies during the pandemic to allow patients to get faster and cheaper care at their convenience.

But it’s this loosening of regulations that has opened up the floor for Amazon to jump in, whether with an idea that increases patient convenience, like its new digital pharmacy, or an idea that revolves around the acquisition of a major telehealth or healthcare company. It’s still not certain what Amazon’s healthcare strategy is, at least not at first glance. The company will need to work hard to find a way to fit all of its health ventures into a neat little package.

One thing is for sure: Amazon is definitely interested in healthcare and medicine, and we can’t stop the company from becoming a healthcare juggernaut in the next decade or so. Would you use Alexa to find a nearby doctor? Are you open to purchasing prescriptions from Amazon Pharmacy? And how concerned are you about your data being used or sold for marketing purposes? Let us know in the comments below!

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