Health

Testing Amazon Clinic, the tech giant’s latest foray into healthcare

Can Amazon help provide healthcare advice and treatment as efficiently as it delivers items to your door?

That was the question I had as I tested the company’s latest foray into healthcare.

Launched earlier this month, Amazon Clinic offers message-based care for 18 conditions such as pink eye and male hair loss, as well as certain types of birth control. Users can also renew prescriptions for additional conditions including high cholesterol and asthma.

Amazon Clinic is available to adults between the ages of 18 and 64 in 32 states, using third-party digital health companies like SteadyMD and HealthTap. People can order treatments from pharmacies, including another Amazon health endeavor, Amazon Pharmacy.

Amazon Clinic is the company’s newest attempt at cracking into the lucrative and complicated healthcare industry.

The Seattle-based tech giant previously took aim at the primary care market with Amazon Care, a hybrid of virtual and in-home services, but is shutting down that service by the end of the year. It is also spending $3.9 billion to acquire primary care company One Medical.

Amazon Clinic is a slimmer service than Amazon Care. One analyst called the model “a very capital-light” way to offer care.

Based on my test, I found the service convenient and straightforward, and the healthcare provider dispensed treatment advice efficiently through a message-based interface.

I suffer from a common ailment treated by Amazon Clinic: motion sickness. I figured the clinic could line up a pill for the next time I get a cheery invite for an afternoon sailing trip.

Amazon Clinic’s landing page provided links to information about its treatment options for motion sickness, giving me a sense of what to expect. I signed in using my Amazon account and set a PIN code.

I was next presented with a HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) authorization enabling the transfer of health information to providers on my behalf.

Given Amazon’s sprawling dataset on consumer purchasing behavior, there is scrutiny on how the company handles personal healthcare information.

My mom taught me to read all contracts, so I looked through Amazon Clinic’s HIPAA form and a page that outlined more clearly how the service uses health data. The legalese slowed me down, and clearer language up front would have made me feel more secure about authorizing the release.

I was then offered the choice of using SteadyMD or HealthTap as a provider. I chose HealthTap and was presented with a document consenting to services that also outlined its policy to preserve privacy under HIPAA rules. Part of the agreement included consenting to having de-identified data disclosed for research purposes or “as part of a dataset that omits your name and other information that can directly identify you.”

I described my symptoms and answered broader questions about my medical history, mainly through checklists. The service also asked me an open-ended question at the end: “Is there anything else you would like to share with your clinician?”

I hit “place your order” and paid the $30 consultation fee. Consultation fees vary by provider and are not covered by insurance.

The service asked what pharmacy I wanted to use, proffering Amazon Pharmacy as an option. My local family-owned pharmacy, Katterman’s, was also in their database.

Within ten minutes on a Friday afternoon I got a text and an email alert. I signed into the portal where a nurse had introduced herself and referred to me by my first name. She left a message about the pros and cons of two medications and a prescription patch behind the ear.

I asked questions about the difference between the pills and how long they last. Another ten minutes passed and I had answers.

There was more back and forth, and eventually I got a recommendation for an over-the-counter drug, Meclizine. I also received advice like avoiding reading while in motion and taking ginger, a common remedy.

The interaction was professional, pleasant and clear — and it was easy. The fee also includes two weeks for follow-up messages after the initial consultation.

The symptom checklists and standardization of clinical questions and answers make for an efficient transaction. But treatments for conditions such as motion sickness or sinus infections are straightforward compared to much of healthcare, and more medically complex conditions may be harder to fit into the format.

It’s unclear how Amazon is making money off Amazon Clinic, and whether it shares revenue with the third-party telehealth providers.

Potential competitors include startups offering options for conditions like hair loss and sexual health, including Ro, Hims & Hers and Thirty Madison.

RELATED: How Amazon’s tech and logistics prowess may disrupt healthcare — and spark concern

Amazon Clinic is part of a growing trend of providing “asynchronous care” through message-based systems. The model does away with time-consuming face-to-face interactions and offers the possibility of precise communication through text.

Having an affordable online option like Amazon Clinic, connected to a well-known brand such as Amazon, might help people seek care for common conditions they would otherwise ignore and help them get prescription renewals.

But some people might miss face-to-face interactions. Short visits help build a relationship with a clinician that can help fend off serious health issues down the line. It will be interesting to see how Amazon incorporates Amazon Clinic into One Medical.

With Amazon Clinic, One Medical and Amazon Pharmacy, Amazon is building multiple entry points for consumers to access medical care through the tech giant. Products such as Amazon’s Halo View health band and a recently released bedside sleep tracking device offer another opportunity for integration, and could be used to remind people to renew their prescriptions at Amazon Pharmacy.

The resulting health datasets could be massive. Amazon might go further and offer incentives to combine private health data with its consumer information and such data could be used to build predictive models, according to some industry experts.

RELATED: Can Amazon change healthcare? Experts sound off on tech giant’s $3.9B deal to buy One Medical

Amazon Clinic’s model of healthcare delivery takes Amazon out of the difficult business of lining up healthcare workers and physical infrastructure, which is what Amazon Care required.

Working with third-party vendors will “probably be the case with respect to how we work in healthcare,” Amazon healthcare exec Aaron Martin said at a recent event.

Given the size, complexity and potential for technology to further transform the healthcare market, the sector has emerged as one of the most likely industries where Amazon could find a fourth pillar of its business, alongside its existing three: Amazon Web Services, Amazon Prime, and Amazon Marketplace.

And Amazon appears to be set on continuing investments in healthcare despite recent layoffs and cuts to other parts of its business. In a memo to employees about the job cuts, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy called out healthcare as one of the company’s “newer initiatives that we’ve been working on for a number of years and have conviction in pursuing.”

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