Can Amazon and Apple Improve Healthcare?



The 2016 annual U.S. healthcare spend was $3.3 trillion dollars. Of this, 32% was spent on hospital care , 20% on physician/clinical services, 10% on prescription drugs, and the remainder went to other professional services including dental, nursing home, and other areas. The details can be found in a PDF from CMS.gov, a U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services federal government website. Not only are residents of the U.S. getting fed up with out-of-control prices, so are the companies that provide healthcare benefits.

According to Reuters, Amazon, JP Morgan, and Berkshire Hathaway plan to form a non-profit company with the purpose of driving down healthcare costs for more than a half-million collective employees. Their objective includes a focus on technology for “simplified, high-quality and transparent healthcare ”that is free from profit-making incentives and constraints.” Apple is opening primary care clinics for its employees and dependents called AC Wellness.

I just finished reading the book An American Sickness by Elisabeth Rosenthal, that details the U.S. healthcare system with a look at how for-profit health care and drug companies are taking advantage of a very broken system. The book discusses how and why pricing can vary wildly for the same procedure or drug, and real-world strategies for avoiding being taken advantage of. It makes sense that people like Warren Buffet, Tim Cook, and Jeff Bezos are taking action against a system that does not reveal pricing and makes “shopping around” for an elective  procedure impossible. Surprises are the backbone of U.S. hospital billing practices. The U.S. healthcare system is dysfunctional. In an emergency room we are faced with a dire situation and we can sign away our rights out of desperation and fear.

It sparks a good deal of hope to know that at least some companies are taking action. In a system where a surgeon can legally bill someone $50,000 for three stitches, it makes sense to vote with your wallet, but in the U.S. Healthcare system we are not told costs ahead of time and are often not in a position to argue if life-or-death is the outcome of a hesitation to choose.

Can these companies do health care better? Is capitalism finally forcing a solution to the problem? Cutting expenses and giving people a better healthcare experience seems to be the objective. Based on Apple’s AC Wellness site, it seems like they are looking for people who can design lifestyle plans for Apple employees, manage population health, and integrate clinical practices and technology “that drives patient engagement.”

Last year Apple CEO Tim Cook was wearing an Apple Watch with glucose measuring capability. If pre-diabetics have an incentive to eat so that their blood sugar levels don’t soar, they might be able to manage their diet and exercise so that diabetes (type-2) can be avoided. The Dexcom G5® Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) System already exists as an FDA-approved system that does not require the user to prick a finger to test blood sugar. Instead, a small patch with a hair-like protrusion is affixed so that blood sugar monitoring can be reported every 5 minutes to a smartphone or smartwatch.

Continuous Glucose Monitoring FDA Approved

The Dexcom G5 Mobile Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) System transmits data on blood sugar levels from a patch with a sub-dermal hair-like needle  to a smartphone or smartwatch. (Image: Dexcom.com)

Apple’s vision may extend beyond financial savings for employees. Last December, Apple and Stanford Medicine announced that they had teamed up to use the Apple Watch in a study for detecting atrial fibrillation in wearers. According to the news release from Apple, “As part of the study, if an irregular heart rhythm is identified, participants will receive a notification on their Apple Watch and iPhone, a free  consultation with a study doctor and an electrocardiogram (ECG) patch for additional monitoring.”

One might be able to avoid the dysfunctional U.S. health care system by maintaining good health through regular feedback using technology, but it’s doubtful that any one of us wearing a watch that gives us feedback on our health stats would actually heed the warnings all of, if not most of the time. Being human, we buy a treadmill and use it to hang clothing on. We buy a gym membership with aspirations to go often but then we never find the time. Genetics plays a large part in the good health sweepstakes, too. We attach aspirations to technology that as humans, not all of us can socially adjust to for maximum benefit. But even the unintended by-products of technology might bring change that makes us better and improves the world we live in. I hope so.

       

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