By Paul Schrodt
February 1, 2018

Amazon made an announcement Tuesday that sent shockwaves through the health care industry and caused insurers’ stocks to plummet: The technology company is joining Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase to create an independent health care organization that will serve their employees.

While details are hard to come by right now, it’s already clear the move could have massive implications for how Americans access medical treatment down the road. Those in the industry have long speculated that Amazon would try to disrupt it. The company’s acquisition of Whole Foods only fueled the flames of theories that it would enter pharmaceuticals. In statements about the new health venture, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said their efforts could be used as a template for all Americans.

“The health care system is complex, and we enter into this challenge open-eyed about the degree of difficulty,” Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos said. “Hard as it might be, reducing health care’s burden on the economy while improving outcomes for employees and their families would be worth the effort.”

Drugs With Data

Futurists, who study and make predictions about technological and scientific innovations to come, are confident Amazon will play a significant role in health care. Having already transformed retail with its online marketplace, it could similarly revolutionize a very different business with the aim of keeping people healthy for cheaper.

“The spending on Amazon right now for vitamins and beauty products is massive, and eventually they’ll be selling pharmaceuticals—the combination of pharmaceuticals with data,” said Dr. James Canton of the Institute for Global Futures. “It’s the largest marketplace of the 21st and 22nd century.”

Your Diagnosis Could Become Easier

In their announcement, Amazon and its partners emphasized the ballooning costs of health care as the impetus for change. Though it’s still unclear exactly how the new plan would drop prices, Canton believes Amazon will do much to streamline what’s widely seen as an outdated process for obtaining information about one’s health. He imagines a “next-generation 23andMe” diagnostic tool (referencing the DNA testing company) that would deliver a comprehensive “data capture of your health and well-being, nutrition, neurobionics” directly to consumers. (Neurobionics is the field focused on developing implants for the brain and spinal cord.) Such a system could make it dramatically easier for the average American to understand what’s wrong with their body and how to fix it.

But Amazon may decide to shake up drugs themselves, too. Canton predicts that the tech giant will identify “health enhancement” as a “major market opportunity,” and it will involve much more than the traditional medications we think of today.

“People are going to be living dramatically longer. Seventy-five is going to be middle age,” Canton said. “They’re going to need to do things to do that. Devices, cogniceuticals, nutrients, vitamins, human enhancement, pharmaceuticals, diagnostics. You’re talking about a whole distributed health care system [Amazon] will play a role in.” (Cogniceuticals are drugs that improve cognitive performance, including memory. Analysts expect them to rapidly grow in decades to come.)

Forget the Pharmacy

Amazon’s proven record of innovation means that it may pioneer new ways of creating and dispensing the drugs we take, too. The old days of waiting in long lines at CVS could suddenly look downright archaic.

“I actually think they’re going to get into 3D-printed pharmaceuticals, hyper-individualized medication,” said futurist, speaker, and author Thomas Frey. “Doctors can prescribe 200 mg, 400 mg of this certain drug, but the ideal dosage for you might be 147 mg on that specific day. We haven’t been able to work with that level of precision, not yet. I think we could easily move into that very soon.” It’s even possible patients may be able to get drugs from a 3D printer at home.

Instead of thinking of how Amazon might shift the current parameters of American health care, Frey suggests conceiving of a different system entirely in the future that the company helps build.

“I think the biggest transition in the health care world is moving from industry driven by pharmaceuticals to an industry driven by data,” he said, “so the data is worth more than the pharmaceuticals.”

And one thing Amazon knows better than just about anyone else is how to wield data about customers.

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