In January of 2018, Amazon made an announcement that sent shock waves through the entire health care industry. The company, along with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase, announced that they would be partnering on a new venture with the aim of improving health care for their employees, a workforce numbering nearly one million strong.
Almost immediately, stocks of the major health care corporations around the world plummeted in what is now a familiar phenomenon that commentators are starting to refer to as getting “Amazon’ed”.
Now, to people who’ve been watching Amazon closely over the past few decades, this really came as no surprise. After all, Amazon’s interest in health care can be traced as far back as the 1990s, with their acquisition of drugstore.com.
And Amazon has continued to show deep interest in health care. In late 2017, Amazon made news after meeting with pharmaceutical giants Mylan and Sandoz. For the better part of a year now, the corporation has reportedly been funding its own independent, stealth research tasked with exploring new technologies for health care.
The most notorious of these divisions was known internally simply as 1492, a reference to Columbus’s arrival on what is now North America. And, in January of 2018, less than two weeks before Amazon officially announced the new health care venture, it capped off the latest of multiple high-profile health care hires, recruiting Martin Levine, a doctor known for coordinating health care for complex elderly patients throughout Seattle.
But for all the news surrounding the announcement, the actual press release itself was kind of sparse on details. It says that the three companies are partnering to address health care, that their solution will be free from profit-making incentives, and that it will start with a focus on their own employees.
All of which begs the question, what is Amazon really up to? They may not have told us, but there are some pretty big clues already.
In the short term, the most likely conclusion is that Amazon, with the financial backing of JPMorgan Chase, is making a move to develop its own health insurance. And, I should point out, that it’s not uncommon for companies to fund their own health insurance, something known as becoming self-insured.
But here’s what’s different, traditionally companies that are self-insured contract out the work to third party services. However, partnering with Berkshire Hathaway changes all of this.
We know that Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, has long been outspoken about the need to improve health care in the US, famously calling the industry a “hungry tapeworm on the American economy.” But, what many people don’t know is that Berkshire Hathaway, a massive organization that is the owner of companies ranging from Geico to Dairy Queen, is actually involved in health insurance, too, by acting as reinsurers.
That means that these are the guys that provide insurance to health care insurance companies. So, if Amazon had any interest in forming its own health insurance company, let’s just say that Berkshire Hathaway would sure be able to help.
And then there’s the question of shipping health care products. We already know that Amazon has been meeting with drug companies, and that it’s already formed its own internal pharmacy team.
And while it may be unlikely that Amazon would get involved in actual pharmaceutical production any time in the near future, it’s not hard to imagine a future where you could have your prescriptions delivered in your next Amazon Prime purchase. After all, Amazon is a logistics powerhouse, with facilities that are already larger than those of both UPS and FedEx.
Not to mention an ever-growing fleet of thousands of trucks and jets, expansion into ocean freight, and even unmanned drone-based deliveries. Yes, this is actually a thing.
This infrastructure could easily be leveraged for prescription drugs, too. But, if you think the new Amazon announcement is all about insurance companies and shipping prescriptions, you’re missing the point.
And that’s because the new announcement from Amazon is about reaching far into the future, and that means diving deeper into the world of artificial intelligence. This is something that Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, has spoken about publicly.
It’s hard not to imagine Amazon Echo’s Alexa becoming more and more involved in your health. After all, it’s already proving useful as an aid for the visually impaired, and it’s especially useful for people with dementia, doing things like reminding them to take their daily medications.
But what if Alexa could tell when you were sleeping and optimize your home to keep you asleep? And what if Alexa could determine when you were having a stroke or a heart attack and know to call an ambulance?
And even better, what if Alexa could detect one of these events before it happens and warn you with enough time to intervene? Amazon is already making huge steps in this direction by allowing developers more and more freedom to integrate wearables directly with Alexa.
And with the massive computing power that Amazon can leverage, thanks to their Amazon web services, the servers that provide nearly a third of the world’s cloud-based storage, Amazon is in a unique position to revolutionize our health experience through artificial intelligence. Even with all of the clues, there’s still a lot that we don’t know about Amazon and its entry into health care.
But here’s what’s clear, no matter what direction Amazon decides to move in health care, it’s going to be like the rest of their ecosystem: obsessively focused and tailored around the customer.