Apple, Amazon, and Uber are moving in on health care. Will it help?

Big tech is making its opening moves into the health care scene, but its focus on tech-savvy millennials may miss the mark.

Apple COO Jeff Williams discusses Apple Watch Series 4 during an event on September 12, 2018, in Cupertino, California. The watch lets users take electrocardiogram readings. (Photo: NOAH BERGER/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Companies like Apple, Amazon, and Google have been busy investing in health care companies, developing new apps, and hiring health professionals for new business ventures.
  • Their current focus appears to be on tech-savvy millennials, but the bulk of health care expenditures goes to the elderly.
  • Big tech should look to integrating its most promising health care devise, the smartphone, more thoroughly into health care.

Health care spending in the United States reached $3.5 trillion in 2017, roughly 18 percent of the nation's GDP. With so much to gain, big tech companies like Apple, Amazon, and Uber are making incipient moves into the space. Such moves from large economic players will alter traditional models of health care, no doubt in ways we can't fully envision.

But will it help? Potentially. In recent years, big tech has gathered the resources and creative minds to change the way we approach many aspects of our lives, even in conservative fields like health care. But to create lasting change, big tech will need to collaborate with traditional health care players to ensure all patients, not just the tech savvy, benefit.

Big tech's opening moves

Last year, Amazon purchased online pharmacy service PillPack for a cool $800 million. This has Angela Chen at The Verge wondering if we'll see PillPack integrated into Amazon's other services, allowing Prime members to order medication through the company's website. Such a prediction makes sense, but it's some ways off. Amazon just recently announced that Nader Kabbani, an Amazon veteran, would lead the pharmacy initiative.

Other tech giants have been making their opening moves, too.

Apple added a Health Records section to its iPhone, allowing users to view their medical records from participating health systems, and the FDA recently cleared an electrocardiogram accessory for the Apple Watch. Uber hired health consultant Aaron Crowell to head its health business venture to offer medical transport. And Microsoft has introduced a Healthcare Bot to provide virtual health chatbots to assist medical personnel.

Alphabet, Google's parent company, has made several health-centric efforts. These include investing in companies like 23andMe and Oscar health, collaborating with Fitbit to create patient-generated electronic health records, and experimenting with its AI platform Deepmind to improve health services and records.

Eyes on the patient, not the prize

What does telemedicine look like? Dr. Maurice Cates, Orthopedic Surgeon, conducts a live Orthopedic consultation remotely by video with a patient.

(Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)

As is evident, big tech's opening moves are less about disruption and more about positioning. Although we aren't seeing grand overhauls yet, we can predict where these companies plan to make their entry point. And the focus appears to be on their traditional base: tech-savvy, middle-class millennials.

That's a potential problem as Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health, told Big Think:

"I welcome all of these players. Because the more players that you get coming in with a different perspective, the better we can get. But it's important for people to understand that most of these players are focusing in on the easy parts of health care. They're focusing in on non-hospital business. They're focusing in on people that are not that sick primarily. And they're dealing with the consumer who's 30 years old, 40 years old, 25 years old."

But the bulk of health care expenditures, Dowling notes, go to the elderly, specifically people in the last year to year-and-a-half of their lives. And because people are living longer, into their 80s and 90s, they'll spend more years drawing upon health care.

Devising apps for digital watches that generate electronic health records is amazing. But how many people do you know own a Fitbit or Apple Watch? How many elderly people take an Uber to the hospital, and how many Ubers are wheelchair accessible? The market for such devices remains niche, if growing, even among millennials.

Another consideration: Would Medicare cover such costs?

Even when tech is designed for the elderly or ill, it rarely considers their needs and partialities. In another Verge article, Chen surveyed the growing category of "aging tech" to discover airbag belts, smart shoes, and smart lamps, all designed to assist in the case of a fall.

As Chen notes: "So many of these devices seem to rely on the ability of caregivers to coerce their elderly relative or patient into using the solution. But if someone doesn't want to wear your shoe or your belt or your watch, it's hard to make them."

iMedicine v1.0

Despite these hurdles, big tech can still be a benefactor for health care, and its most serviceable offering is already here. The smartphone.

Unlike other devices trying to break in, the smartphone has already been widely adopted. Seventy-seven percent of Americans own smartphones, and 46 percent of Americans over 65 own one. Comparatively, only 18 percent of Americans own a fitness tracker and 13 percent a smartwatch.

The result is a health care device that requires little training for any demographic. Americans already use their smartphones for finances, travel, communications, reservations, photography, and a host of other daily activities. Adding health care to the mix would be a small ask, even for the elderly.

In his book Health Care Reboot, Dowling discusses a Northwell initiative that had patients televisit with their nurse through tablets and smartphones. The initiative hoped to better serve patients at home while limiting unnecessary travel and hospital visits. Initially, there was concern that older patients would have trouble adapting, but even patients in their 80s found the connection intuitive and helpful.

"The use of technologies such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops signals the beginnings of the age of the consumer in health care," writes Dowling. "In a general sense, as patient, a person is subservient to the provider. As consumer, the person is more empowered with greater access to information and an ability to behave as consumers do in other fields."

Like big tech, health care revolves around data — a patient's family history, their medical records, their current prescriptions, and the ever-evolving medical literature. The easier and faster it is to collect and coordinate this data between patient and provider, the better health care can become.

Smartphone architecture is already designed to collect and deliver data in a user-friendly manner. By pointing it in the direction of health care, big tech can help expand its definition beyond hospital visits to make the patient an active participant.

Why health care should start long before you reach the hospital

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As with other psychedelics, ibogaine was swept up in Richard Nixon's crusade against minority and freethinking populations in the late sixties and deemed a Schedule 1 drug in 1971. Yet from 1939 to 1970, ibogaine was used in French psychotherapy under the trade name Lambarene, writes Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine pharmacology professor Richard J. Miller.

As with the entire class of substances, the scheduling of ibogaine was a political, not medical, decision. As Miller recently told me from his office in Chicago,

"The drugs, at the federal level, are Schedule 1 drugs, which means that they have absolutely no medical utility whatsoever and are incredibly dangerous. People think that the reason that they're in that schedule is based on some kind of reasonable science or other understanding of what they do rather than just some complete bullshit, which is what it is."

I reached out to Miller after reading his excellent history on pharmacology, Drugged: The Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs (the full transcript is here). While he's spent decades clinically studying drugs, the narrative shines when Miller discusses the cultural stories about how and why we seek to alter our consciousness, be it through caffeine or magic mushrooms.

There is no greater substance for the treatment of pain—Miller's clinical speciality—than opiates. Drugs like morphine reduce the amount of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, causing smaller muscle contractions. The inhibition of these neurotransmitters, combined with opiate receptors in our midbrain implicated in our reward center, help to make us feel better—and get us addicted.

Which is the rub: the greatest pain reliever yet discovered is highly addictive. The novelist Amitav Ghosh wrote an entire trilogy about the political and cultural effects of the opium trade; Thomas de Quincy famously defined a genre when penning a book about his addiction to laudanum. Today, in America, we have our own opium war in the form of fentanyl. The side effects are, as we are collectively experiencing, disastrous.

Just as the mental health industry needs a better solution than SSRIs, which are remarkably effective in the short-term but also deadly over the span of years and decades, physical pain management needs a revolution. The hallucinogenic shrub, Tabernanthe iboga, might provide relief.

Though the cradle of civilization, Africa is relatively void of hallucinogens. One of the strongest utilized comes via the main alkaloid in T. iboga, ibogaine. Iboga communities exist in Gabon, Cameroon, and Zaire, where adherents either eat or drink the yellow root to experience visions in order to, as the Bwiti phrase it, "break open the head."

Iboga made its way to France in 1864, first appearing in the scientific literature two decades later. Ibogaine was extracted in 1901. Howard Lotsof, a heroin addict in New York City, discovered ibogaine in the sixties and self-experimented to curb his addiction. It worked. He persuaded a pharmacologist in Albany to test the substance in morphine-dependent rats, which also "appeared to work," according to Miller. The researchers also noticed positive results getting the rats off of cocaine, alcohol, and nicotine.

The Albany team then worked with a team at the University of Vermont in an attempt to synthesize an ibogaine analog. Even the ceremonial users in Africa knew that the root is toxic; swallow too much and death ensues. The team, searching for a less toxic substance, synthesized 18-methoxycoronaridine (18-MC). Ibogaine has been used in addiction treatment for decades even as it has been predominantly illegal.

After Phase 1 trials, the funding was exhausted. A new organization, MindMed, is currently planning Phase II trials this year. So far, 18-MC does not appear to have the hallucinogenic effects of ibogaine, which might prove important if it is ever developed for widespread addiction treatment or pain management. Ibogaine notably causes cardiovascular problems in some users; 18-MC might also skirt that issue.

This also solves the patent problem. Given the money required in R&D of a new drug—over $1 billion, in some cases—it's challenging for pharmaceutical companies to profit from new drugs. At the same time, as Miller assures me, "they are definitely making money." That much is obvious given the billions of dollars that the Sacklers profited from helping create the opioid epidemic, the very reason we so desperately need a better solution now.

Yet it also begs the question: why are we in so much pain? The reasons are varied: sedentary lifestyles; dramatic income gaps; social media's role promoting the constant yearning for youth; intensely laborious jobs; being overworked and underpaid. If the revolution in pharmacology last century taught us one thing, it's that humans will seek pills to cure problems instead of addressing the root cause. As Miller and I discussed, the distance between physical and emotional pain isn't necessarily as far as believed.

"When you use the word pain, which you just used in a certain way, pain could mean things like somebody's emotional pain to a clinician. However, it's usually much more involved in actual physical pain. That's the kind of thing that people are usually talking about when they're talking about trying to replace opiates for treatment of those kinds of things. On the other hand, there is emotional pain. On the third hand, there is actually a connection between physical pain and emotional pain. We know about how different parts of the brain connect with each other. So there are a lot of levels that you can attack pain."

While it's hard to find a bright side to the opioid epidemic, Miller says one positive is that governmental agencies are taking pain management more seriously. That covers mental and physical pain—there's a reason the FDA has labelled both psilocybin and MDMA as breakthrough therapies. Regardless of the type of pain, and knowing there is a meeting point between the two, psychedelics are showing efficacy in many aspects of treatment. This is a field of research whose time has come.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy.