For quite some time, mainstream tech giants like Microsoft, Apple and Google have struggled to find a secure foothold in healthcare.
One of the biggest challenges they’ve faced has been figuring out just how much investment they should make in the brick-and-mortar aspects of patient care, e.g. real-world hospitals and clinics. So far, they’ve largely stayed out of that side of the business.
However, they have plenty of reason to go hard into virtual care which, among other things, requires no long-term investment in fixed assets and can be delivered easily to the consumer base they’ve already cultivated. As a result, the news that e-retail juggernaut Amazon is going into the telehealth business must be landing with a thump in healthcare boardrooms.
In September, Amazon announced the launch of Amazon Care, a program bringing together telehealth and access to in-person doctor and nurse visits. While Amazon Care is just a pilot program at this stage—it serves only the company’s Seattle employees and their families—it’s a big deal simply because of its pedigree and past history of building things first for their employees and then offering it more widely (see Amazon Web Services).
Using Amazon Care, employees have access to video visits with doctors, nurse practitioners or registered nurses via its app, and can also text a nurse and get answers in minutes. Meanwhile, if the worker or their family needs in-person care, they can request that a nurse come to their home or office.
In addition to offering telehealth options, Amazon Care is providing access to in-office medical visits through an agreement with Oasis Medical Group. Participating employees get their prescriptions filled through Amazon, and can either pick them up at a participating pharmacy or have them delivered.
Having spent three-quarters of a billion dollars to acquire online pharmacy PillPack—and fighting for turf with giants like CVS and Walgreens—Amazon has certainly demonstrated that it takes the retail healthcare business seriously. And now, it seems to be moving into an area in which it can more fully leverage its vast experience transacting with consumers online. Not to mention their success with Alexa in the home.
To my mind, the launch of Amazon Care could be a far more consequential development than Haven Healthcare, the e-retailer’s much-ballyhooed partnership with JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway, which feels more like employee medical insurance. Other than being a large employer itself, which doesn’t necessarily give it unique insight into healthcare, Amazon doesn’t necessarily bring anything special to the program. (I think it’s telling that we’ve heard no earth-shattering news from Haven in the almost two years since its launch.)
On the other hand, if anyone is equipped to scale up a retail-oriented consumer business and find ways to make a profit at it, that’s Amazon. Amazon has the kind of staggering consumer reach a healthcare executive would die to have, with 100 million subscribers to its Prime service alone as of mid-2018. And obviously, it’s built a reputation as a go-to vendor for just about any form of retail digital good. Selling (largely) digital healthcare, particularly with a pharmacy in its pocket, doesn’t seem like much of a stretch.
Over the past several years, I’ve written story after story about the ways in which Big Tech has struggled to make a long-term impact on the healthcare industry and failed. This time, though, I think we’re seeing the start of something big.
In the not-too-distant future, even big-name hospitals and doctors may battle to have Amazon to distribute their virtual care services. Mayo Clinic by Amazon Care, anyone?