Amazon has taken the world by storm and is seemingly capable of delivering anything you could possibly want to your doorstep, sometimes in just a few hours. Sure, people love the convenience of 24/7 shopping that arrives so quickly and conveniently, but is there a limit to Amazon’s relationship with our personal lives? As though the endless boxes on your porch, movie recommendations in your inbox, and Prime discounts were not enough, now Amazon will be in your health business, and this is concerning to some customers who would prefer to keep their medical conditions and information private.
Bidding on Your Healthcare
Amazon has grown exponentially during the pandemic when their home delivery services were sought after. And this week Amazon is trying to broaden their reach into the healthcare industry, having bid to acquire One Medical for $3.9B, in an all-cash deal. The move by Amazon will cement their foray into the world of medical health care which has been building for several years. Regulators and One Medical’s shareholders still need to approve the deal before it is finalized.
“There is an immense opportunity to make the health care experience more accessible, affordable, and even enjoyable for patients, providers, and payers,” Amir Dan Rubin, One Medical’s CEO, said in a statement.
One Medical is a subscription-based medical company with over 180 clinics across the United States. Founded in 2007 in San Francisco, the company services 16 markets across the country, with three more coming soon. The company has over 767K members, and over 8K companies offer One Medical health benefits to their employees.
The Long Game
Amazon has been infiltrating the healthcare industry for several years, trying to add their obvious skill in bringing people what they want to the healthcare field. “We think health care is high on the list of experiences that need reinvention,” Neil Lindsay said.
This is the broadest move into the healthcare industry for Amazon since they bought online pharmacy PillPack in 2018m for $753M. Amazon had previously bought a healthy grocery chain, Whole Foods in 2017 with a price tag of $13.7B.
When thinking of the One Medical purchase, Dr. Aaron Neinstein, a digital health expert who leads electronic health records implementation at the University of California, San Francisco said, “I think this indicates their similar desire as Whole Foods to have a physical place where they can have a health care interaction with their patients or customers that’s available in most major American cities,”
In addition to the health food store, they have created Amazon Care, a 24-7 texting and video service app where people can connect with clinicians. Started in 2019 with Amazon employees, it went nationwide earlier this year. But another business, Haven, a partnership with JP Morgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway looking to provide better health care services and insurance at a lower cost to workers and their families at three businesses shut down last year. Amazon also offers Alexa voice assistants, fitness trackers, and health and wellness products available for delivery and purchase.
“The question is, as you sort of put all of these pieces together, could they create a much more convenient, holistic health care experience for people?” Neinstein said. “What Amazon has become known for is they really understand as a consumer what you want and how to get it to you really easily.”
Dr. Matthew Sakumoto, a clinician and digital health expert based in San Francisco, said “I think it’s going to be tough. I think even currently these pieces exist in silos kind of within Amazon’s ecosystem, but if they can pull it together, I think it can offer a very holistic experience that we’ve really been missing in U.S. health care,” he said.
Not everyone is excited about Amazon’s foray into the healthcare industry. For a company that wants to spread as far as the Amazon River and whose motto has always been “get big fast,” there is cause for worry where sensitive health data is concerned.
U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is also the Chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights immediately urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate the proposal by Amazon, citing worries about the implication for the safety of personal health data. “Amazon has a history of engaging in business practices that raise serious anticompetitive concerns, including forcing small businesses on its site to buy its logistics services as a condition of preferred platform placement, using small businesses’ non-public data to compete against them…..” the Senator added in her statement.
Amazon already has access to personal health information via Amazon Web Services, a massive cloud storage service that stores health data for many hospitals and health systems, which even has its own decoding language for medical text, and people are worried about Amazon knowing their private health information as easily as Amazon knows their movie or purchase preferences.
“I think it opens a lot of interesting questions as to kind of where are the ethics and the legal pieces of that moving forward. But so far, the health privacy laws, I think, will provide a pretty good firewall for now,” Sakumoto said.
“Amazon having backdoor access to private health care data is frankly a terrifying thought and calls into focus how desperately Congress needs to pass antitrust reform to prevent these tech giants from abusing their monopoly power,” Sacha Haworth, executive director of the Tech Oversight Project advocacy group, told CNN Business in a statement.
Amazon is quick to explain that everything will be above board with its dealings with personal information. “As required by law, Amazon will never share One Medical customers’ personal health information outside of One Medical for advertising or marketing purposes of other Amazon products and services without clear permission from the customer,” an Amazon spokesperson said in an email. “Should the deal close, One Medical customers’ HIPAA Protected Health Information will be handled separately from all other Amazon businesses, as required by law.” This is not very comforting, for the many Amazon customers who understand Amazon’s reach.
“Pushing forward into healthcare raises some serious red flags, especially in the post-Roe reality where peoples’ data can be used to criminalize their reproductive healthcare decisions,” Seeley George said, campaign director for Fight for the Future, an advocacy group focused on technology and digital rights.
If the deal is approved by the regulators and One Medical shareholders, the privacy conversation will definitely need to continue. In a world where everything is at your fingertips, personal health care information should not be.
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