Healthcare costs across the world are rising, particularly in the US (where premiums are rising faster than wages). Digital mega-companies like Apple, Google and Amazon may represent the way forward.

Buying medicine from Amazon

Amazon, for one, is no stranger to the health industry. The retailer has long sold over-the-counter products like pain relief and bandaids.

Since last summer, Amazon has distributed non-prescription medicines, manufactured by pharmaceutical company Perrigo exclusively for the retailer. These are often cheaper than what’s available in pharmacies, even beating out Walmart for price.

This is where Amazon’s business model shines – some experts don’t think healthcare can effectively manage supply chains, but delivery is Amazon’s area of expertise.

On top of this, however, there is speculation that Amazon will transition into prescription medicines which would almost certainly shake up the market. Due to heavy regulation, it would be a difficult move on Amazon’s part, but the fear remains.

Fighting health insurance costs

The retailer is also teaming up with JP Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway to help combat the rising cost of health insurance, albeit only for their own employees.

Though there were few details beyond that, the announcement in January was followed by a substantial drop in healthcare stocks, some falling as much as 10%.

Apple has made a similar move, opening a group of health clinics called AC Wellness to help their employees and families afford health care.

AI and health care

But while Amazon’s focus is on offsetting insurance and improving healthcare distribution, the big tech companies like Apple and Google are investing in medical technology in a big way.

Artificial intelligence, for example, represents a new means of detecting health issues. Google subsidiary DeepMind has formed a partnership with Moorfields Eye Hospital in the UK, and is training AI to recognise signs of eye disease far more efficiently than humans.

Meanwhile, Google’s health-tech subsidiary Verily says its machine learning system can guess factors like blood pressure, age and smoking status, simply from analysing a patient’s eye. What’s more, the AI can then use that information to determine the likelihood of cardiac issues.

Google is not alone in making use of health data; Apple’s smart watch is increasingly promoted as a medical monitoring device. The tech giant also featured an inbuilt personal health record system in its latest operating system.

Data collection

Data collection is not just one facet of healthcare evolution. If anything, it represents the unifying force for these advances. For example, Verily’s development of AI cardiac analysis involved studying the datasets of nearly 300,000 patients.

But therein lies a potential challenge for the tech giants. Utilising medical data to provide new services requires not just consent from patients. Medical practitioners also need to be involved en masse.

Google Health, a health record system, was discontinued in 2011 after it failed to gain traction. Similarly, Apple’s new system only functions for patients with participating hospitals, so if they can’t encourage widespread adoption, its success will be limited.

That said, if anyone has the freedom to experiment in these markets, it’s companies like these. Amazon is known for abandoning markets it doesn’t find success in, and along with Apple, Google and others, it has the capital to take risks like this.

While they may be on shaky ground, the future of healthcare technology and affordability could well benefit enormously from the weight of these tech-savvy companies.

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