Amazon Prime Health is upon us. A long list of seemingly random endeavours into health-related fields in the past couple of years are coming together and drawing the outlines of what we are observing with a number of global players today: they are entering the health care industry.
The health care sector is the final frontier for tech giants like Amazon. Expected to rise to just over $10 trillion in size by 2022, it's an industry that will never die and targets every single person — and that, in many places, is in dire need of innovation. Tech companies like Apple and Amazon exploring the field might initially have come as a bit of a surprise to many. But at second glance, it actually starts to make a lot of sense, and Amazon's recent steps into the health care ecosystem raise the question: is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Amazon has been taking active steps to establish a presence in the healthcare industry. Recently, the company filed a patent that indicates Alexa will learn how to pick up not only a variety of emotions, but also audible indicators of sickness from your voice. A very possible scenario is that Alexa will be able to tell if you have a sore throat or a runny nose and use that information to send you an ad for medication, or suggest a recipe for chicken soup.
Amazon's recent joint venture with Berkshire Hathaway and J.P. Morgan is further working on providing cost-effective health care plans to their combined 1.2 million employees. And the acquisition of online pharmacy PillPack has fuelled the idea that Amazon may roll out its own pharmacy services.
It's time we let go of the idea that Amazon is an online marketplace. Amazon has long branched out into a number of sectors, because that's what you do when you have the resources and the power: you try to enter more markets, win more customers, and become more powerful.
If Amazon is able to establish its position in health care, that would mean the ultimate door-opener to an industry of several trillion dollars and an increased group of potential customers. It would also connect the company to older consumers that it has been less successful in targeting so far.
And let's not lie to ourselves: the more user data a provider has, the better. But what does that mean for us?
Right now, unless you read a lot of news or search for this specific kind of information, there really is no noticeable effect on your everyday life. And maybe you will never really notice a shift at all. In fact, Amazon's homemade brand AmazonBasics has been selling products of all kinds of industries for years, from tech gadgets over furniture to motor oil (yes, motor oil). Amazon also owns Whole Foods, a leading American grocery store chain. At some point, it might simply be your most convenient option to ask Alexa to order dinner and your prescription drugs.
But that's not the entire story. When you look at what Amazon has been doing, you will see a number of possible (some of which are very likely) future developments.
A little, maybe slightly over-the-top thought experiment: how far could this go?
Amazon's extensive infrastructure that spans a global network and various industries significantly helps improve logistics and administrative tasks. By cutting out redundant middlemen in the distribution of medication and supplies and shifting these processes to its own systems, Amazon is able to lower the prices for both health care providers and end consumers.
"Alexa, I'm feeling sick" — no problem, Alexa is happy to help. With a couple of targeted questions and a quick test with your home medical kit, your virtual doctor not only gives you your diagnosis in minutes, but also a prescription for the appropriate medication which, of course, Alexa has delivered to your doorstep. And you didn't even have to leave the house — if that's not good news, then what is?
The test run to optimise health care plans for Amazon's, J.P. Morgan's, and Berkshire Hathaway's proves successful and leads the joint venture to roll out a commercial option that immensely relieves employers of the steadily increasing health care benefit costs. Amazon is now a serious contender in insurance.
Bio-hacking made easy! Thanks to its medical data-mining software and partnership with your local hospital, Amazon knows exactly what you need to be healthy and can suggest you some of its Whole Food products, together with recipes that match your cooking skills. As an Amazon Prime member, you'll even get your dinner at a discount.
Staying healthy has never been more comfortable. Gone are the hours of waiting at a clinic squeezed into a small room next to strangers that you know have some medical issues — that's why they're there, right? — but you just can't figure out how dangerous they are to you. Or you can, because at least one of them coughs right in your face. The option of taking a variety of tests in the comfort of your four walls sounds much nicer. And it is becoming a reality, with Amazon releasing a number of medical appliances to make available for consumer use. Checking your medical condition becomes easier and cheaper. As a result, you do it more often, stream your data straight to your doctor, and effectively increase your chances of catching any diseases early-on.
Amazon opens its own health centres, private clinics that can leverage all of Amazon's efforts in health care. As a patient, not only do you benefit from lower cost for treatment and medication, you are also in a constant exchange with your doctor. With your home kit, you can share regular updates on your condition with the clinic, and Amazon's software will recognise abnormalities and notify your physician whenever necessary.
You are now able to constantly monitor and optimise your health using affordable home devices and staying in touch with a professional without needing to drop by their clinic. You get your medication delivered home, and your insurance becomes cheaper. An ensemble that saves money, time, nerves, and probably lives.
Too good to be true?
Using its existing infrastructure, Amazon optimises the distribution of pharmaceuticals — nothing new so far. More and more producers use Amazon's logistics to get their products to the consumer. Amazon's growing share in the market puts the company in an increasingly powerful situation. Soon enough, Amazon controls the market — and with that, the price.
"Alexa, where's the next pizzeria?"
"I suggest you have some kale instead. Kale is rich in Vitamin A and C, which according to your recent health data you are insufficient in."
Maybe it won't sound exactly like this. But what happens if the company that controls Alexa simultaneously records your dietary habits and health data, sells you groceries, AND is the provider of your medical insurance? You essentially give them the power to pressure you into following the diet they want you to follow. In other words: Amazon suggests you Whole Foods products that suit your apparent diet plan and lures you with discounts on your insurance. But if you put yourself in danger of getting sick, you also put your insurance's funds at risk. And why let that happen if it can be prevented? Suit yourself for premiums that adjust to how Amazon likes what you eat.
Take it a step further — got any Amazon smart home appliances? Congratulations, you now can't even cheat anymore. If your Amazon microwave thinks you should steam some vegetables rather than cook your mac and cheese, it can now refuse to do its job whenever it wants. If your TV thinks it's time to go for a walk, it will turn itself off until your fitness app has tracked the necessary calories to burn.
Your medical data, information that used to be private to you and your doctor, lands at Amazon who then shares it with subsidiaries, affiliates, and partners. Medical data becomes increasingly profitable and attractive for commercial use. Yes, it is used for research and to monitor your health, but you have no insight into how that's done. And one weak link in the chain can mean the exposure of your medical history. The more people get their hands on your data, the more likely this becomes.
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Welcome to Amazon, the company that slowly took over your life.
… probably lies somewhere in between. "Amazon (or any other tech giant for that matter) is not an evil company" is a statement most of us have heard before when talking dystopian future scenarios of a corporation that runs our lives. And they (probably) aren't evil people maliciously plotting their next step towards world domination up in the country's highest skyscraper on a leather chair with a white cat on their lap and a personal butler as a footrest. But Amazon is a for-profit company. And as such, Amazon will always act in the best interest of Amazon in terms of revenue-generation. That's okay — as long as it doesn't compromise consumer autonomy.
In cases like this one, there's a fine line between overly conservative rejection and critical examination. A commercial company entering health care can add incredible value to the industry, bring innovation, and transform the way we handle our health. But if that same company controls the majority of our daily lives, it becomes problematic. None of us can say they know what such power, if given to us, could make us do.
Putting too much knowledge and control into any one entity's hands is always a bad idea.
Already, Amazon has made remarkable progress in the field of health care, yet it is still only at the very beginning of the journey. And it's quite likely that it will succeed in its venture into the industry. While we shouldn't outright dismiss that, we also shouldn't jump straight into it just because it's Amazon, or just because everyone seems to be doing it. We are learning the hard way that our data is in the hands of companies that oftentimes don't do enough to protect it. And while the prospect of a company taking over world domination seems like a sci-fi movie concept to us, we do need to ask ourselves: do we want to take that risk?
Ultimately, it comes down to your personal idea of privacy, and how much you value your privacy over your everyday convenience. Your privacy is your right, and it's in your control until you pass that control on to somebody else. It's on you to decide who you let in on your most personal details — as long as you stay aware that an app is not just an app, Alexa is not just a fun little helper, and even your microwave might not just be a microwave, but another device that welcomes Amazon into your life.