While reflecting on some of the most memorable healthcare stories of 2018, I couldn’t help but notice that a large majority of them pertained to technology. As a strong advocate for healthcare innovation, I wasn’t too surprised. Upon further inspection, however, I realized that not only were the stories tech-centered, but most also referenced some form of external disruption.

Market disruption occurs when an industry “ceases to function in a regular manner.” The disruption is characterized as external if the change in function is catalyzed by factors existing outside of the industry. 2018 saw a significant increase in the number of external parties making their mark on healthcare which, in turn, translated to a greater potential for disruption.

What’s interesting is that the external parties are not minor players. In fact, many of them are technology and retail giants. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest names that made healthcare news in 2018, and the moves they made.

Amazon

Amazon has been surrounded by rumors of its desire to enter the healthcare industry for several years and in 2018 the company finally proved them to be true.

In January, it announced a partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan in a play to cut healthcare costs for its U.S employees. In June, it subsequently acquired the online pharmacy PillPack. October witnessed a patent application for Alexa, the virtual assistant, that helps detect sick users, and November saw plans revealed for software that will mine data from patient health records in an effort to improve treatment and reduce costs across the industry.

The diversity of Amazon’s moves demonstrates its clear intention to become a force to be reckoned with in the healthcare industry.

Apple

A technology company at heart, it’s no surprise that Apple’s biggest healthcare moves related to wearables and electronic records.

First, the company made waves when news of the heart-smart Apple Watch Series 4 broke in January. The wearable device, which became available to the public in December of 2018, uses ECG technology to identify atrial fibrillation. Later, the beta release of ios 11.3 in March allowed patients of 39 partnering hospitals to integrate their Health App with their electronic medical record. By August, more than 35 additional hospitals had signed on.

Other health-related Apple projects announced in 2018 included a fall detection feature for the Apple Watch Series 4, a collaboration with RapidSOS that improves the availability of location data for first responders, and a partnership with Lenscrafters to enable digital eye exams through the iPad Pro.

Google

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, spent much of 2018 shoring up its staff for a disruptive foray into health insurance data and data management.  It hired Toby Cosgrove, M.D., the former CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, to the Google Cloud Healthcare team, Vivian Lee, M.D., former University of Utah Health Care CEO, to the Verily Life Sciences team, and Michael Howell, M.D., former University of Chicago Medicine Director of the Center for Healthcare Delivery Science and Innovation, to the Google Research team.

It also announced several strategic partnerships, including ones with the National Institutes of Health and, most recently, Walgreens, that further cement its desire to make an impact on the healthcare industry in the near future.  

Walmart

Perhaps the most surprising external player to expand its activity in healthcare in 2018 was Walmart. The retail giant was the subject of a Wall Street Journal journal article citing a potential merger with the health insurance company Humana. Although the merger has not yet come to fruition (likely due to conflicts of interest related to other pharma partnerships), the company did hire a former Humana executive as the Senior Vice President of Health & Wellness in July. Walmart also began leasing space to a well-known mental health clinic in a Texas location late last year.  

While these companies weren’t the only ones responsible for external market disruption to healthcare in 2018, they were almost certainly the most talked about. With all of 2019 before us, it will be both interesting and intriguing to see what impact these companies make, and who else will take part in the continuing healthcare revolution.