DIGITAL HEALTH BRIEFING: Amazon is selling exclusive over-the-counter drugs — DeepMind, VA partner for patient health — Optra Health launches Alexa-powered genomic solution

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AMAZON STARTS SELLING EXCLUSIVE LINE OF OVER-THE-COUNTER DRUGS: Amazon has introduced an exclusive line of Perrigo over the counter (OTC) health products as a part of its Basic Care line, according to CNBC. Selling the OTC medication doesn’t give Amazon a pathway to selling prescription drugs, the company said. But it could help strengthen consumers’ association between Amazon and healthcare as the company continues to move into the healthcare market. Basic Care was launched in August 2017 and offers 60 health products, ranging from medication to hair loss treatments.

Why is this important?

Amazon’s presence in the OTC and medical supplies business will increase competition and drive down costs. The e-commerce giant’s deep pockets and lack of overhead associated with brick-and-mortar locations allow the company to undercut competitors. For example, a 500-pill bottle of ibuprofen from Basic Care costs just under $7, which is 50% less than the comparable product from Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid.

For the healthcare industry, this is just the latest warning sign of Amazon’s growing healthcare presence.

Healthcare companies are bracing themselves against Amazon, as the e-comm giant gains momentum and threatens to disrupt the entire market. In the past year alone, Amazon introduced HIPAA-compliant cloud features, entered into a cloud partnership with health tech giant Cerner, expanded into voice-enabled remote patient monitoring, and, in January, announced the creation of a healthcare company with JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway.

Some healthcare businesses, such as CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid, are looking to acquisitions to enhance their offerings, in part to protect themselves from the “Amazon threat,” according to The Economist. For example, in December, CVS announced plans to acquire Aetna to create an integrated health system, combining pharmacy, health benefits, and retail clinics. The hope is that by increasing the number of services they offer, customers will spend more time in-store.

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THE VA PARTNERS WITH ALPHABET’S DEEPMIND TO DETECT PATIENT DETERIORATION: The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has approved a medical research partnership with DeepMind, Alphabet’s artificial intelligence (AI) company, to detect patient deterioration during hospital care. The deterioration of a patient’s health can be quite subtle and if the warning signs are missed the results can be catastrophic – globally, patient deterioration accounts for 11% of in-hospital patient deaths. Initially, researchers will focus on analyzing roughly 700,000 health records in order to develop machine learning (ML) algorithms that are capable of identifying risk factors that lead to patient deterioration. Once these early risk factors are identified, DeepMind will then further develop its machine learning algorithms to detect patient deterioration at its onset, which will lead to fewer people developing serious conditions, and will ultimately save lives.

Interest in using AI to improve hospital operations efficiency is growing as awareness of the technology’s potential becomes more prevalent, and Alphabet is at the forefront of this trend. Two of its subsidiaries, Google and Verily, recently published research that demonstrates how computer vision and ML could identify a patient’s risk of suffering from a heart attack or stroke by analyzing an eye scan. And in December, Verily and the Google Brain team teamed up to introduce an open source version of DeepVariant, the machine learning tool that can strengthen the accuracy of genomic sequencing.

HEALTH ANALYTICS PLATFORM LAUNCHES ALEXA-POWERED GENETICS SERVICE: On Wednesday, Optra Health, the company behind the iPhronesis health analytics platform, announced the launch of OptraGURU, a voice-enabled service that aims to make it easier for researchers and clinics to deliver genetic-test information to consumers, according to MobiHealthNews. OptraGURU uses Amazon’s language capabilities and can be accessed through any Alexa-enabled device, such as an Echo. Consumers can speak directly to the service to navigate through extensive genomic datasets. The information is personalized and communicated in an easy-to-understand way. For researchers and clinics, Optra Health hopes the service will reduce the amount of time they need to spend interpreting results to consumers. OptraGURU can also be used as a research assistant, pulling relevant research and loading multiple genetic tests for side-by-side comparisons. AI-based voice assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri, are increasingly being used within the healthcare system. For example, Northwell Health is letting Alexa users check wait times at emergency rooms and urgent care centers near their location. Providers are clearly interested in leveraging the technology – 23% of US physicians are already using voice assistants in a professional capacity, according to a survey from Decision Resources.

COGNOA GETS FDA RECOGNITION FOR ITS AI-PLATFORM FOR AUTISM DIAGNOSIS: The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized Cognoa’s AI-enabled pediatric health behavior app as a Class II diagnostic medical device for autism, which means the company can now submit for full FDA approval, according to TechCrunch. The ruling will also expand Cognoa’s ability to offer its product to enterprise customers, healthcare payers, and directly to clinicians. This could help improve how children with behavioral health conditions, specifically autism, receive treatment in the US. The company’s app, which uses machine learning to analyze parent-provided information and videos of their children to evaluate behavioral health, has been clinically validated to identify autism in children as early as 18 months of age. That’s significant when considering that the average age of autism diagnosis in the US is 4 years. The application also uses the provided data to recommend evidence-based activities that parents can do at home to support their child’s development. Cognoa hopes its tool will eventually become a covered medical provision under domestic health insurance plans, which could make it a standard part of diagnosis and care.

In other news…

  • Microsoft researchers presented a study demonstrating how a virtual reality-enabled cane could help visually-impaired people navigate a virtual environment. The VR experience could be used for orientation and mobility training, and environment preparation.
  • New York Presbyterian (NYP) has been named as one of Fast Company’s top 10 most innovative companies in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). The US health system was chosen for its use of AI and telemedicine. One example of this is the Clinical Operations Center (CLOC), a remote monitoring system and command center that connects clinical care programs throughout the healthcare system.
  • Mindbody, a wellness platform, announced Wednesday the acquisition of performance tracking platform FitMetrix, according to MobiHealthNews.