In recent times, tech giants like Apple, Google and Amazon have made it clear that their sights are set on carving out a place in healthcare. (Yes, the latest news of Google’s healthcare ambitions came when we learned that the HHS Office for Civil Rights was investigating whether its big healthcare data project was holding the line on patient privacy, but that’s practically a quibble.)
The bigger question here is whether any of these giants are positioned to actually transform healthcare or even take a bite out of some of its biggest challenges. According to a Forbes column by Robert Pearl, MD, the answer is “no.” As he sees it, there are three key reasons why the big tech players aren’t likely to transform the healthcare biz:
- Serving consumer interests is different than meeting their medical needs. For example, while 49% of Americans now own a fitness tracker, the companies that make them aren’t really addressing consumers’ medical concerns, with multiple research studies concluding that wearables rarely improve health outcomes. Serving consumers is largely about identifying fads and broad lifestyle issues than tackling larger health concerns, but building devices that help diagnose and/or treat medical problems calls for a much different approach, Pearl notes.
- Tech companies still face health data ownership challenges. As the recent blowup over Google’s data partnership with the Ascension system suggests, it’s one thing to contemplate making money on health data analytics and quite another to forge ahead, Pearl writes. While providers can legitimately crunch data they’ve generated on their own, tech companies by definition have to buy or bargain their way into controlling such data, and there are some major regulatory and public image problems to tackle before they can.
- Big techs don’t want to take on medical liability. Pearl makes an excellent and seldom-highlighted point here. One aspect of becoming a true healthcare technology vendor is agreeing to take on legal liability if your device doesn’t perform as promised. However, as things stand the consumer tech companies are finding ways to sidestep this dilemma. For example, as things stand Apple can promote studies suggesting that its smartwatch can help detect atrial fibrillation without having to take it on the chin if the device sometimes misses an AFib case. If it made concrete reliability claims, though, it would have to back them up, which would be costly and difficult.
That being said, Pearl’s analysis does leave out one important point. While the techs may not be prepared to tackle medical care per se, they can change the dynamics of how healthcare operations work. For example, I’ll be astonished if Amazon doesn’t find approaches to healthcare logistics which eventually have a major impact on the industry’s supply chain management practices.
At least for the time being, though, I believe he’s right that the techs are at best at a serious disadvantage when it comes to solving healthcare delivery, quality and outcomes improvement challenges, and throwing money at the problem won’t be enough on its own.