Amazon Ups The Ante In Healthcare

Healthcare is proving a greenfield opportunity to big tech firms like Amazon and Apple, and retailers like Walmart. Here’s why the Hippocratic Oath is likely to be, increasingly, rendered in bits and bytes.

First, do no harm.

Next — perhaps — make some profit? Do well by doing good?

Increasingly, as data makes the leap from paper to digital conduits, getting that information, and the value that lies within it, smoothly and quickly, and extracting what is important to various stakeholders, can prove lucrative across all sorts of verticals.

Why should healthcare prove any different?

News comes this week that Amazon, the tech giant known for eCommerce, is selling software that, as the Wall Street Journal reports, is geared toward “mining” patient medical records.

The mining is there for the taking, to extract data that can boost the efficacy of treatment and boost profits by cutting costs.

The software is the latest salvo by a big tech firm that is finding its way into healthcare.

Amazon is taking a page — or in this case, a medical chart — from previous iterations of offerings from Amazon Web Services, which of course is the company’s cloud computing operation, and which has been using text analysis in everything from travel booking to customer support. The data-focus move comes in the wake of the company’s $1 billion buy of PillPack, which moves directly into medically-tinged commerce by shipping prescription drugs.

For Amazon the leap into healthcare comes through Amazon Comprehend Medical. To comprehend, look no further than machine learning, which as GeekWire noted uses natural language processing to decode writing found in medical practitioners’ notes. The program, per Amazon Web Services, can let developers identify medical information automatically — spanning notes, prescriptions, reports and tests — thus speeding care.

The idea of data extraction runs into a bit of reality. Doctors’ notes are stereotypically infamous for scrappy scrawl. Amazon maintains that its software is “on par or better than other published efforts” when it comes to extracting data.

As for data privacy, the Journal noted that encrypted features ensure that privacy rules as mandated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) are enforced.

There’s no shortage of interest, then, in a space that measures in the trillions of dollars. That’s the healthcare arena, of course. Within that subset, there are billions of dollars to be made from better analysis of healthcare data — and it’s all about the algorithm.

This is not the first move by Amazon into the healthcare realm. The company has also linked with Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan in a joint venture that has focused on data-driven improvement of healthcare outcomes, and in terms of hardware had linked with medical supplier Arcadia to help monitor diabetes other conditions.

The Apple Model and Walmart’s Approach

The Amazon salvo comes in the wake of news that Apple is, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, “talking” with the Department of Veterans Affairs about using tech to let patients transfer records to iPhones. The idea is to streamline hospital visits, while letting Apple gain traction with potentially millions of new customers. There’s already a “health records” feature in the iPhone but the VA partnership would be evidence of a dedicated effort to tap into the data and the medical needs of a significant population.

No doubt, too, that there is a profit motive here, tying into the aforementioned idea of doing well by doing good. Boosting the ability of providers to make care a bit better and speedier means that patients benefit.

For Apple, at least, getting patients to provide their data means the data could be used for, say, automated prescription refills, where in turn a recurring prescription model may mean that the company takes a 15 percent to 30 percent stake, as per the usual app-driven model.

Walmart, of course, has its own presence in health care, where it has thousands of instore vision centers, and offers health screenings, too, at thousands of locations. Scale means power, and it should be noted here that digital efforts at the retail giant have grown by 43 percent year on year.  There’s no doubt recognition, as PYMNTS found, that healthcare (at 17 percent) is among the top categories of household spend. Walmart is working with insurance companies to reduce costs.

The convergence of giants like Amazon, Walmart and Apple on the giant part of everyday life and spend that healthcare represents may change everything about medicine, transforming process, trimming complexities and, yes, expanding profits.