Over the past few years, Big Tech companies, such as Amazon, Apple and Google, have entered the healthcare industry by developing digital tools, offering care services and, as of late, assisting with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. As the world continues to shift to using digital platforms, technology helps healthcare providers and health plans provide patients with better and more efficient care. Digital health and wellness tools play important roles in allowing patients to manage their health outside the doctor’s office, whether this means using a voice assistant like Amazon Alexa or keeping track of metrics with a wearable.

Amazon launches a new healthcare Alexa skill and plans to expand in-person care

Amazon and Nurx, a women’s health startup, recently launched a new Nurx Birth Control and Sexual Health Knowledge Skill for Alexa. The new Alexa skill reminds users to take birth control pills and answers sexual and reproductive health questions. Notably, users can access the skill by simply having an Alexa-enabled device or the Nurx mobile app—there is no need to sign up for a Nurx account.

Amazon also announced plans to extend in-person care services to more than 20 major cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago and Dallas. Although Amazon Care offers virtual care services to all Amazon employees and some Washington-based companies, in-person services are limited to Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Washington state only. The expansion of in-person care means that thousands of employees and family members will have access to such services and additional healthcare options.

The new Alexa skill and plans to expand care services come as no surprise as Amazon is one big tech firm pushing into the healthcare industry over the past few years. In November 2020, Amazon launched Amazon Pharmacy, which allows customers to complete a pharmacy transaction on either the desktop or mobile app. In the same year, Amazon partnered with Crossover Health, a primary care group, to open neighborhood health centers that have treated over 115,000 Amazon employees and their families since.

 

In the past few years, Amazon rapidly grew its healthcare services and continues to do so through partnerships and service expansions.

 

Health insurers are also using Amazon Alexa and other voice assistants to improve the digital health experience for members. In May 2021, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) health plan members released a virtual concierge service. Members can use Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant to learn about their coverage and COVID-19 vaccines, as well as order a new ID card. Similarly, Anthem BCBS launched enhanced versions of its Alexa skill last year, letting members carry out requests like refilling a prescription or scheduling a call with customer service.

This image from UPMC explains how to get the virtual concierge service for Amazon or Google voice assistants.
UPMC Health Plan Virtual Concierge Options

Apple plans to add new health features to Apple Watch

Apple’s smartwatch features various health-related services, such as the ability to scan for heart conditions and to call for help in case of emergencies. Last month, Apple announced plans to improve its smartwatch by adding blood pressure tracking and a fertility planning thermometer system. The tech giant hopes to have these new features released by 2022, with future plans including sleep apnea and diabetes detection. Apple’s constant updates to its smartwatch point to the future of wearables, a market that continues to grow and has potential to improve the connection between patients and their care team.

Apple is another Big Tech firm slowly moving into healthcare by focusing on devices and products. The iPhone, one of the world’s most used smartphones, stores health records, tracks steps and sleep activity, and provides access to a plethora of healthcare patient portals. In 2019, Apple launched One Drop, a blood glucose monitoring kit that can connect with the user’s Apple Watch or iPhone. Currently, Apple is conducting a women’s health study with 10,000 participants. The goal is to advance scientific research about women’s health and destigmatize menstruation, as well as contribute to the development of new products for menstrual cycles.

Apple takes a different approach than Amazon by focusing on digital healthcare products and devices to make an impact on users’ health.

Health insurers are encouraging members to use these new tools. For example, UnitedHealthcare recently announced that members with a fully insured plan and an Apple Watch can receive a free yearlong Apple Fitness+ subscription—this includes workouts, guided meditations and metrics for performance tracking. The firm decided to offer this promotion to encourage members to take care of and enhance their health, although it is not the first firm to do so—CVS Health offered a free subscription to select Aetna and Caremark members last year.

This image shows an Apple Fitness promotion on United Healthcare's site.
UnitedHealthcare and Apple Fitness Promotional Page

The intersection between Big Tech and healthcare continues to grow

The COVID-19 pandemic caused increased awareness of, and the desire to take control over, one’s health. At the 2021 HLTH Conference, Eddie Martucci—CEO and co-founder of Akili Interactive Labs—touched upon the continuation and acceleration of technology in healthcare. He mentions that “most average consumers, who will become patients, are now really keyed into the nuances of healthcare and their own health in a way they haven’t before.” Priya Abani, CEO of AliveCor, mentions that it is therefore critical for companies to develop a device for patients to not only receive data, but also put that data to use and take care of their health.

As companies continue to develop and improve digital health tools, focusing on the big picture—the health of patients and usability of tools—is more essential than ever.

Corporate Insight continues to closely monitor the digital patient experience across leading health plans. Within our Health Plan Monitor, we see firms promoting and encouraging digital tools to improve the health and wellness of members. Look to our blog for further insights on the nation’s leading healthcare firms.

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Stephanie Chan
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