- Amazon made some bold first steps into health care this year.
- We asked health-care experts to help us figure out where the company is going next.
- Amazon could innovate in a lot of areas from pharmacy to subsidizing healthy food.
Amazon might take its time getting into new industries. But whether it's online retail, cloud computing or groceries, its vision is typically ambitious.
Now, it's health care's turn.
This year, the company made a few early strides in the $3.5 trillion sector. Here are some of the highlights:
- It partnered with Berkshire Hathaway and J.P. Morgan for an employer health initiative.
- It made its first foray into pharmacy by acquiring the internet pharmacy start-up PillPack in the summer.
- It looked at medical diagnostics, specifically at-home testing.
- It filed a patent for its Alexa voice assistant to pick up on a cold or a cough.
- It started introducing more health products on its marketplace.
- It announced a product to mine patient medical records.
- It started up its own employee health clinic.
With all that in mind, we talked to some experts in the space to put the pieces together and figure out where Amazon might be going next.
So imagine you have a sore throat. You let Alexa know, and it responds by asking if you want to book an appointment at the doctor's office or get a virtual consult. You pick the virtual option, and the doctor through Alexa asks you about your symptoms. It decides to send a courier to your home with a tiny portable device to do some basic tests for things like strep throat. The strep test is positive, so the virtual doc sends over a prescription for an antibiotic. (We're assuming that all the Amazon services are fully compliant with privacy and other laws.)
All this happens within a few hours, and you never need to leave your house to sit in a medical office or stand in line at the pharmacy.
That vision of the future might seem like science fiction, but it's plausible to some health industry insiders.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Amazon starts out in health by providing things like over-the-counter medicines, and then moves into making the experience easier for managing your health," said Tom Robinson, a San Francisco-based partner at Oliver Wyman, who consults with health and life sciences companies.
Robinson said it's possible for Amazon's Alexa to become a "front door" of sorts for health care. If it can provide virtual care, including diagnostic testing and pharmacy, it could become a "closed loop" system. It wouldn't be able to deal with all problems, Robinson points out, as some can only be managed in person. But it could do a lot for basic ailments, preventative care and potentially even to help people with chronic medical conditions.
Now that Amazon owns Whole Foods, it could also help people eat healthier.
As Jason Langheier, CEO of a food-tech start-up called Zipongo, told CNBC, Amazon could create a web-based service for people to access meal plans, kits, recipes and even subsidies on fresh foods for those who are already suffering or at risk for disease.
It might inch closer to that, he suggests, by nudging people to eat healthier food options online, which could include some advertising and product placements. "With its underbelly of e-commerce, Amazon can touch the one thing (food) that has the greatest public health impact."
We haven't seen many signs of progress around in this area yet, although its employer group is likely looking at poor diet as a leading contributor of preventative (and expensive) illness.
Now that Amazon owns PillPack, there are a few ways it can start shipping prescription medicines to customers.
Pharmacy experts told CNBC that the easiest thing Amazon could do is focus on the small but growing segment of people who pay cash for their medicines. That's already more than a billion dollar market, and accounts for about 6 percent of the U.S. population, including those who lack insurance or have deductible plans. It also means Amazon doesn't need to forge deals with the pharmacy benefits managers, which are the gatekeepers for those who opt to use their health insurance to purchase prescription medicines.
Thus far, Amazon hasn't made any clear steps in that direction. But we envision a future where the company will offer a list of super cheap generic medications, say for less than $4 for a 30-day supply, just like its rival Walmart.
Do you think Amazon will make the experience of health care any better? Let us know @CNBCTech on Twitter.