What Do Amazon’s Patents Tell Us about Its Healthcare Ambitions?

Amazon is already one of the most advanced tech companies in the world. How will it bring this technology to healthcare?

There has been much speculation about what Amazon’s announcement that it’s creating an independent healthcare company with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan may mean. Of course, I’ve been one of those prognosticators, speculating that it’s a long-term play to build an Amazon Health Marketplace. But, Amazon is already one of the most advanced technology companies in the world; I thought I’d look at some of its existing patents and see if the company had visions of using them in healthcare. As it turns out, Amazon has a number of patents and technologies that might be deployed to make the healthcare system a more efficient experience. There are more to be added as I comb through the USPTO database, but here’s a sampling of the things Amazon is already thinking about:

Automatic exchange of data with doctors

In 2016, Amazon was granted a patent for “a wireless device management environment… based on a determination of communication events.” Noting that wireless devices collect a variety of information and data, the patent claims a system allowing for the exchange of this data in a number of settings, but provides healthcare as an example:

“In [an] illustrative example, assume that the data processing component has determined that the wireless device is within proximity to a hospital or clinic. In conjunction with user calendaring information indicative of a calendar event corresponding to a doctor’s appointment, the data processing component can determine the communication event and begin the information exchange prior to the user arriving at the doctor’s office and powering down the wireless device”

In other words, imagine walking into a hospital or clinic, and your phone and Fitbit immediately start exchanging with your doctor all the information they’ve collected since your last visit (steps, sleep, heart rate, etc.).

Advanced location tracking

Amazon has patented a method for switching between various methods of location tracking to pinpoint user location and provide exact directions in, for example, a hospital.

Another patent, granted in 2014, recognizes that mobile phones have multiple methods for tracking location. By being able to switch between these various methods, the phone can more accurately pinpoint a user’s location and provide directions. For example upon detecting a trigger (e.g., detecting a QR code or detecting an access point signal), a device can switch from using GPS to a second type of positioning element (e.g., using accelerometers, QR codes, etc.) in determining the user’s current location. By using the appropriate type of positioning element for each environment, the device may determine the user’s current location more accurately. The device may provide an overlay (e.g., arrows) for displaying the directions over images captured from the user’s surroundings to provide a more realistic and intuitive experience for the user. Again, Amazon gives hospitals as a preeminent application of this technology:

“In one example, a remote server may push a hospital map and additional information regarding the hospital to a user upon the user making a doctor’s appointment.”

With gigantic hospitals often spanning multiple city blocks, wayfinding is a major challenge, and Amazon may offer a unique solution to provide patients digital guidance to their appointments.

Inventory and bed management

Imagine the wheeled object is an automated mobile unit, and the large square item it docks to is a patient bed. The mobile unit can dock to the patient bed and move it as needed.

Another patent claims a “method and system for transporting inventory items.” The patent essentially claims an inventory management system centered around a “mobile drive unit” (the wheeled item in the drawing) that can assist in automatically managing and transporting inventory in a variety of settings.

While the patent provides many examples where this may be used — airport luggage, custom-order manufacturing, and of course, ecommerce warehouses — it also gives hospital beds (with patients) as an example:

“inventory items may represent people. For example, in a hospital setting, inventory items may represent beds containing particular patients. Thus, [the] inventory system may be configured to provide a safe, effective system for moving hospital beds that limits the potential for injury to patients and reduces the possibility of mistakes arising from human error.”

Amazon has notorious integrated human and robot workers in its warehouses, so maybe its not long until they attempt to do the same in hospitals.

The list goes on

There are many more examples, for instance a patent “limiting the effects of faults in a data center,” which has immediate application in hospitals where “downtime may result in significant disruption and, in some cases, adversely affect health and safety. I’ll add more examples later, but wanted to illustrate how Amazon already has some of the technology the healthcare industry has long needed.

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