Google Investment Suggests That Telehealth To Play Structural Role In Healthcare Delivery’s Future

A few weeks ago, my colleague John Lynn offered some data on how in-person visits have fared versus telehealth visits at UCHealth over the last several months.

In March, before the COVID-19 pandemic flared up, UCHealth was delivering less than 100 video visits per week, according to John’s source. That volume exploded up to about 20,000 video visits per week during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis. Now, things have calmed down considerably, but the system still delivers about 8,000 video visits per week. While this number may still fall further, my instinct is that the baseline has changed.

I’ve given considerable thought to what this means for the longer term, and the obvious takeaway is that even if UCHealth’s experience is typical – with telehealth volumes falling dramatically from levels seen during the peak of the pandemic, the market has seen a permanent expansion.

Now, we know that at least one Big Tech player agrees. A couple of weeks ago, its Google Cloud subsidiary announced that it had agreed to a multi-year deal with Amwell, a telehealth company providing care via employers.

As part of the agreement, Google Cloud will invest $100 million (as long as the telehealth vendor completes its planned IPO). But the big G isn’t just investing its cash in Amwell, nor is it relying on delivering just infrastructure to seal the deal. In fact, it seems clear that even a cloud vendor knows that provisioning high-capacity infrastructure is just a given at this point.

In fact, the partners already have some specific product rollouts in mind, including tech that automates telehealth waiting rooms and checkouts, automated language translations, intelligent triage and approaches that make it easier for payers and providers to perform routine tasks.

What does this deal suggest? Actually, a few interesting things, to my mind at least:

  • Google apparently buys into the Amwell model, which assumes that telehealth delivered efficiently as a captive service by employers.  Not sure what that means for the future of direct-to-consumer telehealth but there may be shifts in the telehealth center of gravity afoot.
  • Google Cloud is attempting to dominate a telehealth sector by building applications in partnership with a vendor. I would have anticipated it working with a health system partner, wouldn’t you?
  • Both players think that current post-peak telehealth visit levels represent a new baseline rather than a trailing indicator of demand that’s already on its way out. Based on what I’ve gathered anecdotally, this seems likely.

As we’ve all seen, even companies with Google’s deep pockets and market reach have found it difficult to stake out a position in the healthcare market. In fact, given how mindboggling aggressive they can be, it’s amazing that uber-aggressive players like Microsoft and Amazon haven’t managed to control any sector of the healthcare IT world so far.

That being said, Big Tech companies are still looking for a way in, and telehealth may turn out to be just that. After all, the telehealth market is still at a relatively early stage and they have a chance to establish standards rather than barging in late in the game. In other words, this may be the moment they’ve been waiting for.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.