The Health Sector Needs Tech Giants

By Carla Smith for

Big companies around the world have made – with varying degrees of success – plays at breaking into the health sector. Google and Apple are prime examples.

Today, there are several technology and retail giants moving into health and healthcare that will surely cause disruptions, and push the sector further faster towards healthier populations that are being cared for in cost-effective, high-quality and accessible settings.

As is so often true, we learn more from our failures than our successes, and healthcare is no exception. For example, the sector has benefited from Silicon Valley’s failed efforts. From Google Health’s online personal health record (PHR), the industry found a major difference between what the patient wants, and what the patient needs. A consumer-facing healthcare product will only be successful if the consumer sees and experiences the benefit.

In Google’s case, their business focus was the “passive patient,” the individuals with one-off clinical experiences with providers that amount to perhaps one to two visits each year for annual check-ups or occasional visits for illness. This group makes up the majority of patients. Patients with chronic conditions, on the other hand, were already actively using PHRs as a tool to help them co-manage their health status.

Silicon Valley’s failures are often linked to illiteracy about how clinicians and patients interact, and how individuals think about their health.

Silicon Valley’s failures are often linked to illiteracy about how clinicians and patients interact, and how individuals think about their health: lack of communication, cooperation or respect for the clinical community, underestimating the depth of regulatory hurdles, over-estimating healthy individuals’ willingness – or need – to actively use IT in maintaining their health, and impatience in understanding how IT needs to function within the patient-clinician relationship.

Healthcare is complicated, because people are complicated. Though the technology may be sound, it takes time to understand human complexities and motivations to succeed in healthcare.

Other tech giants making plays in the health sector are Apple and IBM. Apple’s Tim Cook is moving his team into healthcare via the Apple Watch and HealthKit; IBM and Google are two examples of firms with strong business analytics competencies. Whether or not these firms will continue to find success remains to be seen, and journalists have examined these efforts and collaborations, offering a healthy dose of skepticism and promise.

What is clear of these budding efforts is that tech-first companies have waded into the health sector carefully, avoiding anything that requires regulatory oversight. And, while there have been some partnerships forged with clinical entities, a perplexing resistance still exists to ensure their devices communicate with others, a concept referred to as interoperability. For example, despite the existence of healthcare-specific guidelines, HealthKit has created its own connections that are not standardized. This lack of adherence will certainly create interoperability problems over time.

It will be interesting to see if, and at what point, this current lack of interoperability among tech giants will impact the customers they’re trying to serve. It becomes a question of who will mold the other. Will the tech giants embrace industry standards or vice versa? Based on what my organization is seeing at a national level in terms of interoperability and the release of previously hoarded information, I think Apple (for example) will need to both be flexible and influence flexibility.

Looking ahead, some tech and retail giants – Amazon, Google (again) and Walmart – have started to dip their toe in healthcare in a way I believe shows great promise. But, I would like to see more innovation around other areas. For example, IT-enabled communications and reminders could be repurposed to positively influence individuals to stay healthy.

Tech-first companies have waded into the health sector carefully, avoiding anything that requires regulatory oversight.

The tech giants with massive stores of data on consumer behaviors and trends – from what we eat to where and when we eat – could also position themselves as personal health coaches. And think of how consumer health could be improved if the same type of technology that can estimate how long it will take to get from point A to point B with any mode of transportation was customized around exercise habits, eating patterns and preventive care.

Several startups are figuring out how to take existing shopping behavior data and use it to influence health status. These will be very interesting to watch and learn what’s possible.

An increasing number of traditional healthcare players, such as pharma and life-sciences firms, providers and payers, are actively getting these novel technologies into the hands of individuals. Published success and lessons learned can propel innovations forward in the market. Innovations that demonstrate value have the best chance of making it because there’s such a need.

I am heartened by the progress of those in the healthcare sector today and the tech giants just entering the space, navigating the labyrinth of this industry. As technology continues to evolve, one thing is for certain: There’s more than enough room in the sandbox for new players.