Is Amazon Ready To Protect Patient Data?

Posted on July 6, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Late last month, a Connecticut woman found out that a third-party Amazon vendor she had done business with had exposed her personal medical data to the world, including her medical conditions, along with her name, birthdate and emergency contact information.

The story suggests that Amazon engaged in a bit of bureaucratic foot shuffling when called on the privacy lapse. According to the woman, an Amazon call center rep told her it would investigate the issue, but a further email told her they would not be able to release the outcome of this investigation. It’s little wonder she wasn’t satisfied.

Ultimately, it appears that she was only able to get immediate action once she contacted the third-party seller, which took the photos containing the information down promptly upon her request.

Though no small matter for the woman involved, the episode means little for the future of Amazon, in and of itself. However, it does suggest that the marriage of Amazon technology and healthcare data may pose unexpected problems.

For those who have been sleeping under a rock, in late June Amazon announced that it had acquired online pharmacy PillPack for what reports say was just under $1 billion. PillPack, which competes with services delivered by giants like CVS, lets users buy their meds in pre-made doses. News stories suggest that Amazon beat out fellow retail giant Walmart in making the buy, which should close the second half of this year.

Without a doubt, this was a banner day in the history of Amazon, which has officially stamped into healthcare in 10-ton boots. The deal could not only mark the beginning of new era for the retailer, but also the healthcare industry, which hasn’t yet seen a tech company take a lead in any consumer-facing healthcare business.

That being said, perhaps a more important question for readers of this publication is how it will manage data generated by PillPack, a store likely to grow exponentially as Amazon integrates the online pharmacy into its ecosystem.

While there are obviously many good things its staggering fulfillment and logistics capabilities can bring to PillPack, Amazon’s otherwise amazing systems weren’t built to protect patient health information.

When it comes to most any other company, I’d imagine these problems could be addressed by layering HIPAA-compliant technologies and policies over its existing infrastructure. However, given the widely distributed nature of its retail network, it’s not just a matter of rethinking some architecture. Sealing off health data could require completely transforming its approach to doing business. Just about every retail transaction could prove a chink in its armor.

Since it wasn’t itself required to meet HIPAA standards in this instance, Amazon won’t get any flack from regulators over the recent PHI exposure. Still, issues like this could undercut the trust it needs to integrate PillPack into its core business successfully.

If nothing else, Amazon had better put a strong PHI protection policy in place on its retail side. Otherwise, it could undermine the business it just spent almost $1 billion to buy.