Ever since Amazon turned its gaze to healthcare, questions about the eCommerce operator’s plans and intentions have outnumbered answers. That’s still true, and may remain so for the time being, but this week new details emerged that, at the least, is shedding light on Amazon’s healthcare vision.
Okay, enough teasing.
Here’s the scoop, courtesy of court testimony: Amazon wants to, in the words of The Wall Street Journal, “redesign health insurance.” And that’s only one possible aim — others involve using artificial intelligence to improve diagnoses and the overall patient experience, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Among the biggest ongoing mysteries for even the most sophisticated Amazon watchers is the specific purpose of the independent healthcare company that includes Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase, a venture that was announced last year. Thanks to a lawsuit and unsealed court testimony over a non-compete clause involving a United Healthcare executive who joined that Amazon-backed venture, at least one of the goals of the venture — which still has no official public name — has emerged.
The testimony from Jack Stoddard, COO of the venture, said the three companies want to see if they “can reinvent what insurance looks like in terms of benefit design,” according to the newspaper, whose parent company sued to make the testimony public. “He said workers are often confused about what their plans cover. Employers could try different approaches and see what works, he suggested.”
That should not come as a total surprise. When the venture launched just more than a year ago, its initial focus, according to a press release, involved using technology to provide U.S. employees and their families with easier, high-quality, transparent healthcare at a reasonable cost.
“The ballooning costs of healthcare act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy,” said Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett at the time. “Our group does not come to this problem with answers, but we also do not accept it as inevitable. Rather, we share the belief that putting our collective resources behind the country’s best talent can, in time, check the rise in health costs while concurrently enhancing patient satisfaction and outcomes.”
According to Stoddard’s testimony, the three companies participating in the healthcare venture are keen to help their combined 1.2 million workers. According to the report, he “testified that the venture will be deploying smaller-scale tests of ideas, like making primary-care access easier, or maintenance drugs cheaper. If these ideas work, they could be scaled up among the venture’s owners.” The venture also aims to “bolster the importance of primary care,” and, according to Stoddard, “make it easier for doctors to do good care and to spend more time, not less time.”
Pharmacy costs are another focus area of the Amazon-backed healthcare venture, he said, though he denied that it has plans to “compete with existing pharmacy-benefit managers.”
Other Healthcare Work
The venture represents only one part of Amazon’s healthcare efforts, of course. The company last year bought online pharmacy startup PillPack, and by late last year was gearing up to introduce the service to its own employees. Amazon is also making moves to be a major player — or the major player, depending on your view — in the healthcare supply chain industry, a push recently punctuated by the eCommerce operator offering pre-fabricated “smart” hospital rooms for sale on its marketplace.
Artificial intelligence promises to play a significant role in upcoming Amazon healthcare efforts. That’s according to a new — and rare — interview with a leading Amazon executive. Taha Kass-Hout, a former official with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who now runs AI operations for the eCommerce firm, talked with medicine and science news outlet Stat about “the increasing power and utility of AI in healthcare” — a topic that includes Amazon.
Amazon last year launched a machine learning-backed health data service called Comprehend Medical, and it has already been used to process health claims for pharmacies … to predict whether an insurance claim will likely be denied,” according to CNBC. Kass-Hout said that in the years to come, AI could help bring new efficiencies to patient care — for instance, to narrow options offered to doctors down to a manageable handful.
It’s not often that much information comes from Amazon, especially regarding efforts and ventures that are relatively vague. Stayed tuned — eventually, more details have to make their way to the public as Amazon makes more progress toward its healthcare goals.