Disruption my ass! Tech companies want healthcare dollars

SUMMARY: Amazon has set its sights on healthcare as it smells another profit opportunity. Google has signed an agreement with the Mayo clinic to help analyze data as they want a slice of healthcare dollars but what’s missing from these tech companies is “the human touch” that patients want.

Via The New Republic “whether it believes its own rhetoric—or just smells another profit opportunity—the tech industry shows little sign of slowing its march into the world of commercialized medicine. Following years of rumor and hype about its health care intentions, it was reported this week that Amazon may soon launch brick-and-mortar pharmacies. Amazon also has a forthcoming public health care offering known as Amazon Care, in which it will offer telemedicine and in-person care. That program has already been available to Amazon employees for about 18 months. Google also signed a deal with the Mayo Clinic to manage and parse health records for “insights,” explaining that cloud computing and data analytics would provide better performance. Google also reached an agreement this week with HCA Healthcare, a large hospital chain, to mine patient records to develop algorithms that might improve care.”

Now consider this; most patients still have to call their doctors to get them to send medical records to each other, and there isn’t one place online where patients can view ALL their medical records.

The hype around telehealth is vibrant as start-ups all want VC funding, and while telehealth does offer some benefits for routine visits, HCPs are worried about its effect on patients’ long-term health. It’s OK to use telehealth or email to ask for an Rx refill, but when a patient has serious issues, a diagnosis needs to be made in person, not via email or a computer screen.

The first failure

Earlier this year, a health care consortium known as Haven, which was funded by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan, folded after accomplishing nothing in three years. At the time, a spokesperson told CNBC that Haven produced useful insights that would yield advantages for its partners’ individual initiatives: “The Haven team made good progress exploring a wide range of health care solutions, as well as piloting new ways to make primary care easier to access, insurance benefits simpler to understand and easier to use, and prescription drugs more affordable.”

The problem is that VC sees opportunities that don’t necessarily align with patients’ needs. New algorithms may hold out promise for processing masses of medical images, but even these supposed breakthroughs come with deficiencies, often owing to biased training data. One New England Journal of Medicine study found that algorithms used in a variety of medical contexts can reinforce racial biases, compromising care. In this arena, “disrupting” health care doesn’t mean repairing a broken system; it means leveraging that system’s vulnerabilities to innovate new delivery systems and new forms of profit.

Why Now?

There’s gold in healthcare, and VCs and tech know it. U.S. health care spending grows consistently, reaching $11,582 per person in 2019. Insurance premiums—and insurance company profits—have risen far faster than workers’ wages. One study found that Americans now spend double on health care what they did in the mid-1980s. Tales of Americans refusing health care for fear of bills—passing on an ambulance ride or delaying treatment for an acute condition—are legion. Medical bills remain one of the leading contributors of consumer bankruptcy—a novelty for large swathes of the world where no one must pay for medical care, much less risk bankruptcy.

Is universal healthcare the answer? We are heading that way. The fact is that we can’t sustain healthcare cost increases much longer. There is still healthcare lobbying money that lines politicians’ pockets. Still, eventually, I believe universal free healthcare will become a reality driven by patients and companies tired of seeing their healthcare costs increase.

Google and Amazon see a way to make money disguised as disruption. We need to be careful, very, very careful.