A secret Amazon team, dubbed “1492,” has been working on a skunkworks project devoted entirely to healthcare, CNBC reported Thursday. The unit has been developing hardware devices and software applications related to electronic medical records, telemedicine and other health-related issues.
The “1492” moniker refers to the year that Christopher Columbus made his voyage to the Americas, but perhaps the Amazon team missed the irony that Columbus actually did not realize he had “discovered” a new continent and thought he was somewhere else.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that Amazon’s aim is to cover the bases in the healthcare arena, likely a bid to cash in on the sector’s massive profit potential.
The greater U.S. healthcare market experienced double digital growth from 2000 to 2011, with an increase in U.S. revenue from US$1.2 trillion to $2.3 trillion, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That figure likely will grow at an increasing rate as healthcare costs in America continue to skyrocket.
One of the goals of Amazon’s 1492 team appears to be ensuring that Amazon develops a foothold in multiple segments of the lucrative healthcare industry. The latest news builds on an earlier announcement that Amazon has been exploring the possibility of selling pharmaceuticals.
The 1492 team reportedly has been working on ways to streamline medical records management, so as to make the information available to consumers and doctors more readily. In addition, it reportedly has been considering a plan that could improve U.S. healthcare for those with limited access to a doctor. It could include the development of a new telemedicine platform that would allow patients to have virtual consultations with doctors.
Amazon is not entirely new to the medical world, as it already has developed health applications. The next step could be greater connectivity options between its medical devices and other proprietary products, such as its artificial intelligence assistant, Alexa.
“Healthcare is the biggest sector in the economy and ripe for innovation,” said Roger Entner, principal analyst at Recon Analytics.
“Nobody spends more on healthcare than the U.S.,while many countries have significantly better outcomes for their citizens than the U.S.,” he told TechNewsWorld.
Amazon is not the only company that has been exploring opportunities in the world of healthcare. Apple, Google and Microsoft each have launched their own initiatives.
“It makes sense for all these companies to be investing in AI for healthcare, because along with AI in transportation, AI in healthcare will change society,” said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.
With access to all the medical scans, diagnoses and feed information that is available from the major healthcare providers, artificial intelligence would do a better job in some respects than a human, he told TechNewsWorld.
“With its massive data centers and AI capabilities, Amazon is well positioned to be a leader in this area, but it needs to get access to the data, which has been the biggest challenge,” added McGregor. “Note that it’s only been within the last decade that the majority of medical information has transitioned to electronic form, so it would have been almost impossible to do before.”
Cloud Computing and Healthcare
With advances in the archiving of digital information and deep learning, the time could be right to leverage AI for healthcare. However, regulations and privacy concerns could be major challenges, at least in the short term.
“Unfortunately, many healthcare providers are trying to maintain control of all this data,” said McGregor.
“In the U.S., in particular, healthcare providers hide behind HIPAA regulations, which state that you need to keep the patient’s personal information private, not that you can’t share the anonymized information,” he added.
Healthcare organizations would have to be persuaded to share their data, even though doing so would leverage a third-party service provider like Amazon. Would the healthcare industry even consider such cooperation?
“Up to now, the answer has been no — but it could significantly lower their costs and improve the quality of services provided,” added McGregor.
In the long term, “it will take an independent third party like Amazon to maximize the benefits of AI in healthcare,” he suggested.
That is why the various players are entering this very controlled market — one that has both potential and hurdles — so cautiously.
“We are so early in the digitization of healthcare that nobody is really leading,” said Recon Analytics’ Entner.
“There is definitely demand, but everyone needs to buy in for it to work for everyone,” he said. “The reason why everyone is flocking to it is market size, but the obvious fact is that it can be done better, and nobody is doing it remotely right.”