Medtronic — known for making complicated medical devices that often require a surgeon to implant them — is partnering with Amazon.com to deliver pill-sized cameras to patients' doorsteps.
At home, the patient swallows the "PillCam," which then performs a video tour of the small intestine, collecting data along the way.
The distribution partnership, disclosed earlier this week, opens new opportunities for access to care — particularly in rural areas — and marks another strategic step by Amazon into the lucrative health business.
Medtronic, which has its operational headquarters in Fridley, first secured emergency authorization for in-home use of its PillCam SB 3 Capsule Endoscopy System in August 2020 when the pandemic suppressed demand for, and access to, elective hospital procedures.
The company has had the PillCam technology for 20 years, but this was the first time it has been made available for in-home use.
Giovanni Di Napoli, president of Medtronic's gastrointestinal business, said that the company had long planned to have more technology available for in-home use, but the pandemic kicked those initiatives into high gear. Medtronic's PillCam technology was also used in Europe to perform at-home colonoscopies during the pandemic.
"We were able — because of the partnership with Amazon, because of COVID — to accelerate our execution to bring this technology home," said Di Napoli.
On Monday, Medtronic announced the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted the PillCam 510(k) clearance, allowing its continued use for at-home remote endoscopies.
With the clearance from the FDA, Di Napoli said that the at-home PillCam business is now "scalable."
A PillCam is exactly what it sounds like: a capsule with a camera inside. For now the PillCam endoscopy system is the only Medtronic device of its type available for home use. Medtronic's devices will be sold through both Amazon and Amazon Web Services, the company's cloud computing arm.
Doctors are given unique user privileges on Amazon to order the PillCams, which can then be shipped directly to a patient's home. In addition to the capsule, patients receive a recorder which collects images from the pill camera. Amazon picks up the recorder and ships it to Medtronic to analyze the results.
Medtronic PLC chose to partner with one of the world's fastest growing logistics firms.
"It's happening because Amazon logistics are becoming the best in the world," said Gene Munster, partner with Minneapolis-based Loup, a research-driven investment firm.
Meanwhile, Munster said, "Amazon wants a piece of health care."
Amazon declined to comment on its work with Medtronic, but the e-commerce behemoth clearly has a rapidly expanding interest in health care.
"Amazon doesn't want to compete with Medtronic. What they do want to do is take their logistics platform and make it industrial health care strength and be every major health company's provider for logistics to the home," said Munster, who drew acclaim in the technology sector as a longtime, influential analyst of Apple for Minneapolis-based Piper Sandler Cos.
Last year it launched Amazon Pharmacy, which sells prescription medications to customers. In June, Amazon unveiled the AWS Healthcare Accelerator to work with startup companies. This past summer, the company started offering Amazon Care to employers in all 50 states, which started as a telehealth service but has morphed into primary care.
Other medtech companies are connecting with Amazon. In August, GE Healthcare announced a "strategic collaboration" with AWS to deliver artificial intelligence and cloud-based imaging and data for healthcare providers.
For Medtronic, the goal is to offer a wider array of PillCams for patients to use for gastrointestinal care in their own homes, Di Napoli said.
The standard endoscopy, which examines a person's digestive tract, requires a patient to be sedated. Patients are usually asked to find someone else to drive them home. A remote PillCam endoscopy eliminates that scheduling ordeal.
Di Napoli said that Medtronic is working on the "next generation" of PillCam technology.
"We have a very robust [research and development] team," said Di Napoli. "Think about the future: This recorder is going to be gone. ... The images [will be] going straight to the cloud."
Dr. Jonathan Kirsch, an assistant professor of medicine who leads the Mobile Health Initiative at the University of Minnesota focused on rural Minnesota, said that one upside to the pandemic has been innovations in telehealth and other tools to expand access to care.
"It's been quite an amazing process to see this. COVID really forced everybody to be creative in figuring out how to help people in need," said Kirsch. "I think one of the things that COVID has really highlighted is how you have to adapt."