Thursday, December 3, 2020


Like it or not, it appears that Jeff Bezos is an unsung hero of the pandemic. Amazon deserves praise for giving millions of lockdown-stricken Americans access to basic goods and acting as countless businesses’ lifeline over the past few months.

As if that weren’t enough, the company just launched Amazon Pharmacy, which can now deliver prescription drugs to patients’ doors in 45 states and the District of Columbia. Will Big Tech finally revolutionize health care?

Investors seem to believe so. After all, the stocks of Amazon’s competitors took a substantial hit following the announcement. We should be paying attention.

Amazon’s entry into pharmaceuticals was predicted back in 2018, when it acquired PillPack, a delivery service after which Amazon modeled its pharmacy. This is on-par with its competitors which entered the market in a similar fashion, offering online delivery of prescriptions or discounts for those who may be uninsured or have high-deductible plans.

Online pharmacies have been around for some time already, but their rise has been hindered by red tape and recurring investigations over counterfeit products. Consumer trust in Amazon, on the other hand, has no equal.

Rural areas, which have been suffering from lack of care for years, could very well find themselves the main beneficiaries of Amazon’s venture. Beyond its brand, Amazon’s know-how and infrastructure sets it apart from the competition here. Its ease of delivery can help make up for the more than 1,200 independent rural pharmacy closures that occurred between 2003 and 2018. Likewise, the 24/7 availability of on-call pharmacists is a game-changer when the closest in-person pharmacist may be hours away.

Besides, the company isn’t content with its current delivery apparatus. Since 2016, it’s been developing Amazon Prime Air, which should soon allow for the delivery of goods via drone. That could include the delivery of drugs which already exists in Africa and could soon become a reality in the U.S. Amazon’s own competitor, CVS, recently partnered with UPS to test drone delivery of medicine in Florida. It’s only a matter of time until those capabilities are incorporated into the new pharmacy service.

But just like drone delivery, health care is heavily regulated. Those regulations are currently preventing the company from operating in five states, but the company hopes to expand into those states once they’ve complied with the technical requirements of those jurisdictions. In a few years, Amazon managed to completely transform the retail industry, and it looks like pharmacy is next.

For all the enthusiasm it’s generating, we must not forget that Amazon Pharmacy is merely a delivery system. Patients still need a doctor to make a diagnosis and write a prescription before Amazon can take care of the rest. Still, one can easily see that Amazon is pushing the rapidly-shifting frontier of virtual health. Once integrated with other services, Amazon Pharmacy could accelerate the shift from hospital-based to home-based health care delivery, a move that should lower health care costs in the long run.

Imagine being able to see your doctor at home through Skype, have them send your prescription to Amazon and receive your medicine in the mail two days later. Patients with severe conditions and their caregivers, busy parents, the almost 200 million patients with chronic conditions — virtually everyone would benefit from this new standard of convenience. 

To be sure, this vision of the future isn’t to everyone’s liking. The learning curve for this new technology-driven approach may be steeper for elderly users (it’s hard to picture grandma learning overnight how to use a smartphone app to get her pills delivered by drone). The pharmacy market, too, is already highly consolidated, and while Amazon is new to the field, it could soon dictate its prices.

That could mean low prices in normal times, but during the pandemic, Amazon raised prices on certain household goods. Back then, consumers had other stores to choose from, but the situation could be dire if Amazon Pharmacy became the only seller of certain essential drugs.

Amid fears that tech giants are turning into monopolies, consumers may be reluctant to hand new data over to Amazon. The company already knows our email, credit card information and spending habits. Now, it wants patients’ Social Security numbers and medical diagnoses. Data privacy is a major concern in health care which, when combined with a tech company as large as Amazon, makes the public squeamish. Nevertheless, the new pharmacy falls under current federal regulation on data protection and data sharing, which should alleviate concerns.

At any rate, the market has spoken. It is ripe for the remote ordering of medicines, and Amazon is delivering. By launching an online pharmacy, Amazon is priming our health care system to make these technologies do what we’d long hoped they would — work for patients and finally help improve the well-being of Americans who need it.

• Luke Ashton is a graduate student of economics at George Mason University and works as a free-lance data and policy analyst in D.C. area. Elise Amez-Droz is a health care policy manager in the D.C. area and a Young Voices associate contributor.

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