“Alexa, call the doctor.”
As of this moment, Amazon’s speech-powered wonder cannot connect you with a physician, but the time is coming. In fact, many of the tech giants that bring us content, commerce, and community, are moving quickly toward an era when they will deliver healthcare to our homes in many different forms.
Word that Amazon is hiring leaders to bring it into the pharmaceutical market surely sent shivers through executive suites at retailers like Walgreens and CVS, which now dominate the 300 billion-dollar-a-year business. From a consumer’s point of view, any sign of a competitor that will bring clarity and cost-cutting to the market is good news. Less well recognized, but even more important, is the fact that Amazon and other tech giants will also be good for our health.
Hidden in all the data that flows from our internet searches and purchases is a wealth of information that could be used to make the entire healthcare system smarter. Consider, first, the fact that Twitter can predict, six weeks in advance, where and when a flu outbreak will occur and estimate its severity. Flu costs individuals and the economy billions of dollars in lost productivity and billions more in health care expenses. (In 2015-2016 about 25 million Americans got the flu and around 310,000 were hospitalized.)
Dig a little deeper into the data and you get to the startling news that Google and Facebook capture vast amounts of data on suicide and are unmatched when it comes to early-warning signs for individuals falling into life-threatening depression. Facebook partners with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to help people who are at risk of hurting themselves and Google’s search engine delivers referrals to suicide prevention help that has literally saved lives.
Although the benefits to people in crisis are profound, routine medical care is where tech giants could have the greatest impact. Compliance, which means taking all of a medicine as prescribed, is a huge problem. Today only about half of the prescriptions written lead to full compliance. Many are never even filled. And too often, people with chronic conditions that could be managed well stop taking their medicine soon after starting. Often people stop medication because, in the short term, they feel no effects whether they are on or off a medicine. Eventually a problem like diabetes will catch up to you with devastating, life-shortening effects.
Healthcare delivered by tech companies could deal with compliance problems by lowering costs, delivering automatic refills, and increasing communication with patients. Insurers that pay for medicine would rather foot the lower expense of prevention than cover expensive interventions for sick patients. With information based on a patient’s pattern of use, an online provider can suggest options that may work better. Hypothyroidism, for example, can be addressed with a once-weekly medicine rather than one that is taken every day. Lots of people who have trouble getting into the routine of daily pill-taking may be more compliant with a once-weekly dose. However someone or something like an algorithm would have to suggest the option.
Naysayers would suggest that healthcare is such a personal matter that people wouldn’t want to share key information with a company like Amazon. The same concern was raised when big chains began competing with neighborhood pharmacies, but the market proved that people were willing to trust the big companies, especially if it saved them money. Besides, people are already adapting to the notion that their data is routinely collected and they are willing to permit the practice if they see some benefit. Most incontinence supplies for adults are now purchased for discreet delivery at home. If consumers are willing to trust online sellers with this business why wouldn’t they trust them with their medicines?
For generations, people tolerated an inefficient and costly system because they were insulated from the actual cost and didn’t know they should expect better. Now that people pay a larger share of their healthcare bill themselves, they are more attuned to the value that they are getting for their dollars. Companies like CityMD, which provides we’ll-see-you-right-away care at a good price, show that the old ways can be improved upon.
The healthcare industry has been so insensitive to consumers for so long that only two related brands—Colgate and Johnson & Johnson—regularly appear in the rankings of most-trusted American companies. People like these two companies because they associate them with value and innovation, which means that they are sensitive to what their customers want. Amazon, Google, Apple, and other tech companies with the resources to enter healthcare are similarly attuned to the marketplace and, as they enter the healthcare realm, they will bring all of their talents to bear. One or more of them will be able to provide consumers with products, communities of people with similar needs, and access to caregivers in a way that is seamless, efficient, and less expensive.
Until this moment, insurers, big provider networks, retailers, and pharmaceutical firms who benefited from the old system had few incentives to change. As a result, they have grown unresponsive to consumers who, in turn, view them with resentment. A few who see what’s coming may adapt and manage to compete with the newcomers who are ready to transform this 3.2 trillion-dollar part of the economy. They better move fast because this change will not just fix the broken system we have. It will replace it.
Lynn O’Connor Vos is CEO of greyhealth group.