Rumor is, Amazon is expanding into the business. Should we be afraid? (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen a million articles about Amazon building a crack team to overthrow the health care industry. Most of the focus has been on telehealth, electronic health records (EHRs) and prescription drugs.

Coincidentally, we just hired an Amazon leader as our Chief Strategy Officer. Her name is Tonia Degner, and we’ve known each other for more than 15 years. She’s consulted with us since we first launched our company, so while most of her background has been in retail, she also has some knowledge about the health care industry. She’s a great thinker and strategist who sees opportunity before others do — or where many others wouldn’t. She has a different take on how Amazon and other non-health care companies look at health care.

All the Amazon hoopla made us all a little suspicious, since Alexa is listening in on all our conversations! However, I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. I sat down with Tonia to get her insight on the recent announcements from Amazon. 

REID: What inspired you to join this industry?

TONIA: I crave innovation. I love to learn new things and I thrive off effecting change. I’ve also used the health care system, so I understand the headaches. The headaches weren’t usually due to the costs — as you can imagine, my benefit plan at Amazon was pretty amazing. For me, it was about convenience — saving time and frustration. While Amazon has a beautiful health plan, new innovations in health care tools have helped me a lot. 

REID: Tell me some stories of what you mean.

TONIA: I traveled a lot with my work — I spent half of last year in hotels. When I got an ear infection while on the road, it was the a telehealth service that let me get a prescription from my New York hotel room.

My company plan included a set of specialists that were supposed to be at my beck and call. But I couldn’t get a return email on a question. However, within a few hours I had email responses from specialists with a Doctors Online service. When my (very high end) doctor prescribed an Rx for a chronic condition, I was able to use this same service to ask some second opinion questions that led me to a much better (cheaper and easier) drug solution.

What I realized is that there’s lots of room in health care for innovation, and for creating a fantastic patient experience that is actually conveniently accessible. I’m excited to be in a new industry in a new company that allows me to have a dramatic influence. 

REID: What did you do at Amazon?

TONIA: As part of the senior management team, I worked on a variety of projects. For example, I was responsible for the kids and baby divisions. If you think of how many training pants and outfits get sold online today … well, it was huge. I led teams that made operational improvements across the organization in the way we worked with suppliers in the U.S. and around the world. Most recently, I managed strategic relationships with movie studios, coordinating online promotions with their latest releases. One of the job responsibilities I miss: getting to preview movies prior to their release! 

REID: Recently, there’s been concern inside the health care and benefits industry because of rumors that 

TONIA: First, you should note that it’s only rumors — Amazon hasn’t announced anything yet, not that they usually make advance announcements on their plans. Many projects were extremely secure until launch. Really, the industry shouldn’t just be concerned about Amazon — we should watch out for everyione coming after health care! Google, Apple … so many others! The space is primed for gutsy companies that will deliver a better member experience. 

REID: One of my concerns is that too often, people in our industry have a reason why things won’t change: because “that’s been tried before and it didn’t work.” As a lifelong innovator, how does this look to you?

TONIA: Some companies in health care feel so remedial. It feels like a government-run agency.

We need to stop seeing the 10 things wrong with a new idea, and rather see how it can be reimagined for the end-customer. If health care companies have the guts to serve that customer to a high degree — and solve the 10 things — they’ll keep dominating the industry. That’s how to keep a foothold on greatness, and have less of a reason to fear Amazon, Google, or even the next health care conglomerate that just eats up great health innovators (and then kills them).  

REID: Many industry insiders seem to think technology is the answer to the woes of health care. Your thoughts?

TONIA: I think a lot of focus is on technology as the savior — especially as we’re trying to improve our health care system. While that’s good, it’s not the whole picture. What I learned at Amazon is that the marriage of technology with a relentless focus on the customer experience is key. For instance, if you launch an app that has some great features, but drains the battery and sends useless notifications, that’s not the best customer experience. Amazon invests in new tech and approaches only if it’s good for the end customer.

REID: You told this same story while negotiating for Amazon across the table with many other companies, right?

TONIA: Yes, I’ve told many CEOs, “You need to figure out your industry for yourself. You know the trends in your industry, and you know the complaints from your customers. Things are changing, whether you want it or not. Aggressively go after your customer in new ways. And do it sooner rather than later.” 

REID: Well, we’re excited to have you helping us innovate. Any last tips today from a new convert to the health care industry?

TONIA: Focus on the long-game on behalf of the customer. Focus on ease of use. Creatively solve the problems members experience. Invest in innovation; invest in customer service. Ask “how can I better serve my customer?” Anyone who focuses on delivering a great product to a customer in a way that makes sense to them, will win in this space. 

Now it’s your turn! What’s your opinion on the future of healthcare? What should we inside the industry do to stay on the cutting edge? Comment below or email me at reid@freshbenies.com.