How Amazon Could Disrupt Care (Part 3)

The Amazon/Berkshire/JPMorgan alliance begins with a crucial advantage: It doesn't have to make money in healthcare.

In Part 2 of this series, I explored how the innovations that Amazon popularized in retail would be transformative if applied to healthcare at scale.

The potential value of such innovations is not lost on those inside the healthcare sector. Many startups and large healthcare organizations are already working hard to adapt and adopt them. (See, for example, my articles on diabetes preventionBoomers and how to shape the future of connected health). Here are some of the advantages that Amazon brings to this challenge: 

Amazon can start with a clean sheet of paper. Unlike those inside the current healthcare system, Amazon doesn’t have existing customers to placate, legacy systems to update or business models to protect. A fundamental disconnect in healthcare is that the patient is not the customer, so helping customers doesn’t necessarily benefit patients (or vice versa). In this case, Amazon and its partners are the customers. And, because the potential patients are employees, Amazon can leverage strong existing connections, relationships and overlapping interests.

See also: 10 Mistakes Amazon Must Avoid in Health 

Amazon brings differentiated capabilities and experience. While many talented people in healthcare are working on the same capabilities, few can match Amazon’s technical expertise and practical experience. Amazon’s expertise in social networking, mobile devices, user experience, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence are extremely relevant to healthcare. Its existing platforms, like its Alexa-enabled devices and AWS cloud platform, will, no doubt, also come into play.

Amazon doesn’t have to make money. Innovators in healthcare have to worry about revenues and reimbursement, usually from insurance. With deep pockets and the potential to recoup cost through savings, Amazon has great flexibility to experiment without such concerns. Indeed, the alliance declared itself to be “free from profit-making incentives and constraints.” While its initial focus is on reducing cost and improving satisfaction for its 1.2 million employees, the alliance is not shy about wanting to create solutions relevant to all Americans. Doing so would serve two other incentives for Amazon to think big about its healthcare innovation.

Healthcare could enable synergies with Amazon’s other businesses. As I’ve previously observed, Amazon approaches competition as a no-holds-barred battle for tighter customer relationships and ever-larger share of customer wallets. It is hard to find a bigger untapped market category than healthcare through which to grow Prime membership. In addition, because mobile devices, AI and cloud-based platforms and services have become synonymous with the future of healthcare, it is likely that Amazon can find business synergies in those areas, as well.

There is a massive $3.2 trillion healthcare market to enter. Industry valuations tremble at the whisper of Amazon’s interest in healthcare for a good reason, as has happened to pharmacies, benefit managers and health insurers. That’s because investors know that there are deep pockets of inefficiencies and unnecessary complexity in healthcare that, in turn, offer real market opportunities for Amazon. For example, one analyst estimates that just pharmacy benefits management (PBM) business is a $25 billion to $50 billion market opportunity. Amazon had already been rumored to be building an internal PBM capability for its employees. Adding Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan employees into that mix would be another step closer to launching a market-facing business.

See also: Media Coverage on Amazon Misses Point contributor Dan Munro is pessimistic. He describes the overall effort as an exercise in “Fantasy Health Care.” At the heart of the problem, he writes, are big systemic flaws that the alliance cannot address. What’s more, Munro argues that the alliance “is not remotely novel or innovative, and the historical evidence is clear that it certainly won’t disrupt health care.”

Rather than partaking in a fantasy, I think Jeff Bezos offered a cleared-eye view of the challenge in the alliance announcement:

The health care system is complex, and we enter into this challenge open-eyed about the degree of difficulty. Hard as it might be, reducing healthcare’s burden on the economy while improving outcomes for employees and their families would be worth the effort. Success is going to require talented experts, a beginner’s mind and a long-term orientation.

For my part, I’ll take an optimistic point of view. The problem is big and hairy, and I applaud the audacious effort to take it on.  Let’s remember: Innovation is always hard and more often than not fails—and that’s why the rewards are great for those with the audacity to try and the chops to succeed.

Chunka Mui

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Chunka Mui

Chunka Mui is the co-author of the best-selling Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance, which in 2005 the Wall Street Journal named one of the five best books on business and the Internet. He also cowrote Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years and A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the World We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050.



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