Tech giants, such as Google and Apple, have had their sights set on the health market for years. They have a good reason: the health sector ticks every box that technology companies are interested in. They are suffering from problems such as affordability and scarcity, it is a relatively non-transparent market and there is a lot of money in it.

In the past, competitive forces proved they were able to shape and dominate other sectors. Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft have completely changed the way we communicate, shop and work. These tech companies have the same similar ambitions in healthcare, although each concern has its own approach based on its own strengths. Apple focuses on consumer electronics, Google on data and Microsoft on online services and analytics. Which steps did they take recently during last year?

Apple

Apple has offered the ‘health, care and research kit’ for years in order to be able to build healthcare apps quickly, and to gather and share information. In 2018, Apple launched Health Records on iOS, allowing customers to see and change their medical dossier, as well as share them with healthcare providers. This can also consist of data from electronic patient records belonging to hospitals or other healthcare providers.

By mid-2018, more than 500 hospitals were connected to Health Records. Apple also further developed their personal metrics programs, such as cardiac monitoring (ECG) via the newest Apple Watch. They are also forging partnerships to work towards digital eye tests and revalidation programs for those recuperating from knee and hip operations.

Alphabet

Google’s parent company Alphabet was possibly the most active in the healthcare branch in 2018. Most noteworthy was the launch of the new Google Fit platform and their new partnership with Fitbit. Their goal is to make data more easily accessible for doctors. They are now in direct competition with Apple in the e-health market.

Alphabet also showed strong support for the American company Oscar Health. The online health insurance company gained almost 400 million dollars in investment capital last year. Oscar Health customers can save for discounts on their health insurance premium by exercising. On top of this, Alphabet also has two subsidiary companies which are focused on healthcare. Verily develops possibilities for medical machine learning, whilst Calico is focused on genome research.

Amazon

Amazon shook up the healthcare market last year in their quest for growth. Firstly, they announced that they are going to set up their own health care providers for staff. This will be done in partnership with business bank J.P. Morgan Chase and Warren Buffett’s megacorporation Berkshire Hathaway.

Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos wants to start his own healthcare company that will offer smarter, cheaper, and better care. After this announcement, Amazon bought online pharmacy Pillpack for 1 billion dollars. Through smart use of data, Pillpack improves service for patients. The client receives precisely measured doses, is reminded when it’s time to take medication, and no longer has to take care of declaring costs to insurance companies, as Pillpack takes care of that as well.

On top of all this, Amazon has started developing products to gather and process medical data via the cloud service Amazon Web Service, with digital assistant Alexa fulfilling the role of digital doctor.

Microsoft

Microsoft is mainly focusing on researchers, doctors, and biotech. The company is developing various AI and cloud computing projects through the NExT program. In 2018, Microsoft launched diagnostic support of images and tooling for doctors and scientists in the field of genomics.

Both projects are AI-driven and are saved in the cloud. Microsoft emphasises the latter. The company offers cyber security by saving healthcare data safely in the cloud following strict compliance and confidentiality regulations.

Alibaba/Tencent

Large Asian tech companies are also active in the healthcare sector. Alibaba is predominantly known as a cheap web shop, but in Asia they are leading the application of Artificial Intelligence in healthcare. CEO Jack Ma rapidly developed a platform for the interpretation of diagnostics like CAT scans. The tech giant also has a virtual assistant that supports doctors when selecting treatments.

It’s even less well-known that Tencent- Asia’s number one tech company- is also extremely interested in healthcare. Customers can get medical advice and make appointments via the app WeChat. The company has an online and offline ecosystem at their disposal in order to provide healthcare through partnership with Trusted Doctors. Moreover, Tencent has developed diagnostic programs in order to help doctors diagnose cancer early. They’ve also started initiatives to utilise their AI platform in order to help diagnose other diseases, including Parkinson’s disease.

The future

Tech companies are on a roll and are going to have an increasingly large impact on the healthcare sector. The degree to which this occurs depends on a number of developments:

  • Tech companies are wrestling with a lack of information standards in health care, which hinders the exchange of data. In 2019, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM are working on further developing a new standard, FHIR, in order to enable unhindered connection.
  • Medical professionals are critical of tech companies’ developments, and they are the ones who decide in the end if these developments are implemented. There are, for example, doubts about the reliability of these developments, such as the ECG of the Apple Watch. Moreover, the sector is suffering from ‘not invented here’ syndrome.
  • Tech companies are not always as careful with data as they should be. Facebook is the most recent example of this. Many consumers don’t let this stop them. However, it remains to be seen how long they will accept this when dealing with sensitive information such as illnesses and treatment.
  • Everything is different in healthcare. A patient can act differently than a consumer. The healthcare branch is also much more strictly regulated than other sectors.
  • In closing, the healthcare sector- depending on the country- is often publicly financed.

The answer

In the Netherlands, many healthcare facilities will say that they aren’t noticing the influence of large tech companies very much. That is true. That is the very reason why now is the correct time to take action. Ask yourself if you, as a healthcare provider, know enough about the digital needs of your patients. Research how tech companies can contribute to affordability, accessibility, and staff choice within your healthcare facility. Broaden your horizons and don’t be surprised by the development speed of tech companies.

By: Walter Kien (manager Healthcare IG&H) en Arvid Glerum (consultant Healthcare IG&H).

Walter Kien

Author Walter Kien

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