Google and Apple enter digital health. Will they rocket-launch health care to new future?

by Alexandra Pelletier on February 4, 2014

Google logo with applesAlexandra Pelletier is the Digital Health Program Manager in the Innovation Acceleration Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. She manages the FastTrack Innovation in Technology Award, an initiative to accelerate, rapidly develop and deliver innovative clinical software solutions to improve patient experience and operational efficiency.

When the largest and most innovative technology companies in the world invest, radical disruption follows. Google and Apple, multibillion-dollar companies operating across the globe, are already deeply embedded into most of our lives. They now want to bring their network and reach to health care.

Their new investments could completely transform how patient data are captured and how information is shared. Through their big data capabilities, they’re well placed to rapidly evolve health care delivery processes. In the very near future, I expect we will see connected sensors or “smart” devices of all kinds begin to integrate into our lives, weaving a web of quantified data into actionable health information and changing how patient and care providers engage together.

Consider some recent events. First, there was Google’s buzz-generating meeting with the FDA. Apparently it was to discuss its radical idea to create a contact lens with sensors as small as bits of glitter to monitor blood sugar levels and transmit the data. (If you have 15 minutes, this video explains not only Google’s thinking about the contact lens, but a vision of augmented reality in your eyes—the Terminator comes to mind.)

Then Google buys Nest…

Most people wondered why Google purchased Nest for $3.2 billion. Nest is a smart thermostat that “learns” a household’s living patterns and sets itself to the right temperature. It also allows the consumer to remotely control the temperature on a mobile app.

My conjecture (shared by TechCrunch) is that Google is looking to gain ground in the “Internet of things,” a term to describe various smart physical objects that connect to the Internet to transmit and collect information. While Nest is not a health care product, it’s a good entry point for Google to grow its presence in the home. It’s easy to look two steps beyond this Google acquisition and see connected medication bottles, scales, wearables and many other objects transmitting health data from the home and being analyzed to improve health.

Meanwhile, there continues to be buzz about potential uses of Google Glass in health care. Hospital organizations are looking at the various opportunities (read these imaginings from Beth Israel CIO John Halamka, MD). Google Glass is a hands-free technology that responds to voice commands and can retrieve, present and transmit information to and from the Glass. Given these features, surgery and emergency care are clear first steps in medicine.

…and Apple takes a bite

On Jan. 23, Mobihealthnews broke the news that Apple has hired developers from Proteus and other digital health sensor companies. Proteus is a digital health platform that includes a swallowed sensor (powered by stomach fluids) and a wearable patch that transmit biometric data. According to 9to5Mac, Apple, too, looks to be developing skills for creating wearable digital health devices.

Since the iPhone’s introduction in 2007, the growing presence of smartphones and tablets in the home creates new opportunities for people to engage with their health. Apple’s newfound interest in sensors and devices like the iWatch indicate that it’s ready for a more active presence in the healthcare market.

Could it be that these two large companies have enough capital swashing around to simply dabble and experiment in health? Or are their investments building toward a real commitment to radically transform how we live and think of health? Today, radically transforming health care from within is akin to Flying a 747 and changing it into a rocket ship while in mid-air; without a big external push, we might well stay on an incremental path. If Google and/or Apple provide the means to build a rocket ship, it’ll launch health care into an interesting connected future—perhaps sooner than we think.

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