Amazon Wants to Help Doctors and Patients Process Healthcare Data

Xconomy Seattle — 

Amazon intends to wade deeper into healthcare. The company announced Tuesday that it is working with groups in the industry to help them make sense of unstructured medical data using Amazon’s software tools.

The Seattle e-commerce and technology giant unveiled what it calls Amazon Comprehend Medical, which the company says could help hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare organizations process patient information more quickly to glean new insights and, ideally, improve care.

Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) has laid out an ambitious vision for the product. Although the company has proven itself adept at building massive businesses in multiple sectors, such as retail and cloud computing, the new medical software presents a different kind of challenge—and perhaps a more difficult one, given the complexities of the healthcare industry.

The software is the latest offering within Amazon Comprehend, a suite of language-processing services developed as part of the company’s cloud computing business. Amazon says the new healthcare-focused tools comply with federal privacy laws aimed at protecting patient information, but didn’t say whether the data it processes would be stripped of patient names and other identifying information.

According to a blog post, Amazon Comprehend Medical has the potential to retrieve and present relevant information to clinicians when they’re making treatment decisions. The tools could also aid with recruiting patients for clinical trials and managing these studies once they’re underway.

Amazon says the benefits of the software, which is underpinned by machine learning algorithms, could eventually extend to patients. Amazon Comprehend Medical could help patients manage their medications, suggest scheduling a doctor visit, or show key information when patients are making decisions related to their healthcare, for example.

Healthcare organizations do not need to have expertise in machine learning or artificial intelligence to have their patients’ data analyzed by Amazon Comprehend Medical, the company says. Amazon says that once it receives unformatted information from patients’ electronic health records and other sources, its software analyzes the data and puts it into a format that’s easier for care providers to understand and store.

Amazon Comprehend Medical can identify information such as diagnoses, medications, results of laboratory tests, and procedures performed on patients, the company says.

In the blog post published this week, Amazon named two healthcare organizations that have begun using Amazon Comprehend Medical: Roche Diagnostics and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Matthew Trunnell, chief information officer at Fred Hutch, as the center is known, says in the post that conducting clinical trials can require “research teams to sift through and label mountains of unstructured medical record data.” Amazon’s new language-processing tools could help the staff at Fred Hutch and other organizations do this work faster, Trunnell says.

It’s still not clear whether Amazon’s long-term vision might involve partnering with—or attempting to displace—some of today’s leading electronic health records software vendors.

Sources reportedly told CNBC in November 2017 that Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing division, was on the verge of announcing a “huge healthcare deal” with Cerner (NASDAQ: CERN), one of the nation’s leading vendors of patient records software. (Amazon and Cerner have yet to announce a major agreement following the report’s publication.)

Separately, Amazon in January announced a joint venture with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM) to reduce the cost of healthcare for their U.S. workforces and boost the employees’ satisfaction with the care they receive. This summer, the companies tapped Atul Gawande, a high-profile surgeon, professor, and writer who works at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, to lead the joint venture.

Gawande described in a New Yorker article published earlier this month the frustration he and some of his colleagues have felt with the computerized patient records system used at their hospital. The software, which was installed in recent years at Brigham and Women’s, is developed by Epic Systems, a competitor of Cerner.

Still, the focus of the joint venture Gawande is leading appears to be more about helping employers and patients control healthcare costs, rather than how medical data is documented, stored, and shared.

But given Amazon’s increased interest in healthcare, many sides of the industry—insurance, technology, prescription management, and more—are likely watching the company more closely than in the past.