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Aug 22, 2017

An Interview with an ex-Amazonian: the opportunity in healthcare

In the past couple weeks, I’ve seen a million articles about Amazon building a crack team to overthrow the healthcare 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 freshbenies Chief Strategy Officer. Her name is Tonia Degnerand we’ve known each other for more than 15 years. She’s consulted with us since we first launched freshbenies, so while most of her background has been in retail, she has some knowledge of the healthcare 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-healthcare companies look at healthcare.

All the Amazon hoopla made us all a little suspicious since Alexa is listening in on all our freshbenies 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 freshbenies?

TONIA: I crave innovation. I love to learn new things and I thrive off effecting change. I’ve also used the healthcare 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, these freshbenies tools 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 freshbenies telehealth service that let me to 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 the freshbenies 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 healthcare 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. 

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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 & 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 US 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 healthcare and benefits industry because of rumors that Amazon is expanding into the business. Should we be afraid?

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 EVERYONE coming after healthcare! 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 great logic to explain 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 healthcare 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 healthcare 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 healthcare 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 healthcare. Your thoughts?

TONIA: I think a lot of focus is on technology as the savior - especially as we’re trying to improve our healthcare system. While that’s good, it’s not the whole picture. What I learned at Amazon is that the marriage of technology alongside a relentless focus on the customer experience is the 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 at freshbenies. Any last tips today, from a new convert to the healthcare 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 do you think makes for a winning customer experience in healthcare? What stories can you share? Comment below or email me at


Reid has a passion for helping brokers & employers strategize fresh approaches to benefit plans that contain costs and increase access to care - helping employers & employees control their healthcare dime, time, and peace of mind. He writes & speaks around the country and is the Co-Founder & CEO of freshbenies.

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Tanya Boyd
Tanya Boyd
President of Tanya Boyd & Associates

I didn’t want to go to urgent care or the ER. Using Doctors Online in my freshbenies membership, I went online to ask a doctor. The doctor responded and said to check my blood pressure. He followed up with the next day to make sure my numbers were OK. By then, the feeling was starting to go away. He told me if it persists to contact my doctor. It was great that I didn’t have to go somewhere and wait forever, and it was free.” - Kelli from Texas

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