Michael Hiltzik: Amazon's acquisition of a medical firm may not disrupt healthcare, but could disrupt your life

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

In announcing its newest foray into the healthcare field last month — the $3.9-billion acquisition of the primary care firm One Medical — Amazon explained its interest in the industry this way:

"We think health care is high on the list of experiences that need reinvention."

There are two ways to think about that statement. For one thing, it's indisputable. For another, when you hear Amazon talking about reinventing how you get medical treatment, you should be afraid. Very afraid.

That's because of what we know about Amazon's corporate expertise. The giant company doesn't know much about delivering healthcare — that's obvious from the checkered record of its previous healthcare ventures.

What Amazon does know about is how to snarf up personal data from its customers and exploit it for profit.

Information from buyers of books and other merchandise on its website, including from users of its Kindle ebooks and its Echo home devices (those objects you activate by summoning "Alexa"), all gets used by Amazon to sell users more merchandise, more subscription services, more TV shows and movies.


"Amazon is a data company," says Caitlin Seeley George, managing director of Fight for the Future, a tech policy advocacy group. "Everyone should be asking how Amazon is looking at this from that mind-set. What data does Amazon want to collect and how can they be thinking about monetizing it? That's not exactly what you want your healthcare provider to be thinking about."

Amazon has issued assurances that it will adhere to the privacy mandates set forth in the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, which prohibits healthcare providers from sharing personal medical information without a patient's permission.

"As required by law, Amazon will never share One Medical customers' personal health information outside of One Medical for advertising or marketing purposes of other Amazon products and services without clear permission from the customer," the company says. "Should the deal close, One Medical customers' HIPAA Protected Health Information will be handled separately from all other Amazon businesses, as required by law."

But pledging to comply with the law is not much of a concession, as the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen observed in a letter urging the Federal Trade Commission and other agencies to closely scrutinize the proposed deal, which is subject to regulatory approval.


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