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Big Tech Go Big in Healthcare

COVID has sharply divided the world into haves and have nots. While some sectors have been decimated, others are riding the big wave up. FAMGA, needless to add, falls in the latter (there’s the small thing about antitrust that’s proving to be a dampner), but they sure are on the right end of the pandemic wave.

Now they’ve set their eyes on healthcare (they’d already entered the space earlier-  now they’re all in).

In pre-pandemic times, tech was already making inroads into healthcare. COVID just gave it the big push it needed. And because Big Tech companies love to collect big data (and we’ve been hearing a lot about how they do it), they seized the healthcare opportunity in an effort to streamline and better healthcare services and, of course, to collect more data (for clinical decision making and research purposes). No surprise that cloud computing is expected to witness exponential growth in 2020, as it enables instant access to patient data..

The great upside is that the new technologies hold a lot of promise in transforming the health services delivery, which is the need of the hour. With telemedicine, artificial intelligence-enabled medical devices and electronic health records, the healthcare system can leverage highly efficient tools that have immense potential to improve patient care.

However, before we get into what the Big Five (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft) are doing healthcare, here’s a quick look at how the new technologies are making an impact in the sector.

Upgraded Diagnosis: Advanced computing tools help frontier warriors filter, sort and organize the huge flow of patients’ data and enable major health issues to surface much earlier. They also allows doctors, hospitals and health systems to sift through the vast data in their health database to accurately measure diagnostic errors, and then potentially reduce the chance of these errors recurring in the future.

Ease of Access: Wearable smart devices and mobile health applications have witnessed widespread adoption in the healthcare market. Simplified functioning and user-friendly features add to its charm. Smartphones are used as a practical health tool, enabling home-based monitoring and rudimentary vital checks. Some instances include wearable devices that are designed to continuously monitor body temperature, while some are designed for pregnant ladies which measures contractions when placed on stomach.

Advanced Personalised Care: Personalization is the way to go –  big data,  testing abilities and advanced technological innovations have not only made  personalised treatments possible (for  certain incurable genetic defects), but also helped in preventing  symptoms of certain diseases. For instance, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) is used for the treatment of cancer and heart failures. CRISPR edit the genes that may cause cancer or increase the risks of heart failure.

More Accessible Services: Technologies like tele-health can play an essential role by connecting patients directly to doctors in faraway health facilities, providing a valuable link to the healthcare system without putting stress on already stressed healthcare infrastructure.

FAMGA to the rescue

The sharks have been circling in for a while.

In the past few years Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Apple have announced big  plans for their entry into  healthcare. Amazon has made bold announcements that stand to  disrupt the pharmacy and tele-health industries. Apple is already in the market with its wearable devices and is now putting its efforts into clinical research initiatives. Microsoft is focussing on the healthcare cloud market, while Alphabet is working on its artificial intelligence expertise to deliver medicines.  Facebook has also come up with its ‘Preventive Health’ tool to connect its users to the health providers and encourage them for regular checkups.

A look at what the tech behemoths are doing in healthcare
Amazon

In an attempt to dominate more than just online retail, Amazon has set its eyes on the $3 trillion market by entering into healthcare. After acquiring PillPack – an online pharmacy,, making investments in testing AI tools, launching a healthcare program called Amazon Care, and its voice assistant technology to exchange protected health information, now the e-commerce behemoth has entered s the online medicine segment by launching Amazon Pharmacy in India. It’s an area that’s seeing a spike in growth after the pandemic forced the world indoors encouraging people to shift to the online consultation, treatment, and medicine delivery.  This, by the way, is not the first time Amazon is entering the space. In 1999, it made investment into Drugstore.com with the aim of expanding into the  pharmacy space. It didn’t work then.

Now’s another moment is time.

Drugstore didn’t work. Which does not mean Amazon Pharmacy won’t – it’s a very different world and it’s also a very different company now – the numbers are on Amazon’s side and leveraging its user base would be easy to do.  Having a direct distribution advantage to over 300 million active customers, 100 million prime members, and around 5 million sellers on the site, Amazon is capable of  simplifying the supply chain and improving the experience as well as cutting on the cost for patients, payers, and manufacturers.

Source – CB Insights 

Amazon’s collaboration with JP Morgan and Berkshire Hathway is another examples of the company’s commitment in the sector. The joint venture, called Haven, will provide “innovative approaches to address issues like making primary care easier to access, insurance benefits simpler to understand and easier to use, and prescription drugs more affordable.” The company will also look at “new ways to use data and technology to make the overall health care system better”. The venture aims at improving health care for the 1.2 million combined employees of the three giants.

The healthcare story, of course, doesn’t stop here. The e-commerce giant also offers several Amazon Web Services (AWS) solutions to healthcare companies to handle enormous data loads and analysis. However, the existence of other Big Tech in healthcare attempting to spread their cloud platforms makes the competition tough for Amazon. It’s wait and watch to see if Amazon will succeed in bringing its consumer-first brand into healthcare faster than its competitive Big Tech companies.

Apple

Last June Apple announced health functionalities in the Apple Watch – things like monitoring of menstrual cycles, hearing health and also general physical activity. It then started to move deeper into the space and moved to integrate some hospital and health systems with its products. In October 2019, the company hired a top cardiologist (David Tsay, MD, Ph), to join its medical team.

By the time COVID showed up, Apple was quite ready to enter, head on, into the space.

Now, to contribute in the fight against coronavirus, the organization, , in collaboration with Google, has designed a contact tracing technology run with Bluetooth in smart phones. This technology is used by health research experts to rapidly track Covid-19 spread and send notifications to infected individuals. On June 9, 2020, Apple introduced updates to its Covid-19 application and website where users can anonymously share information with the CDC.

Apple has also developed software kits including ResearchKit for medical researchers to build health applications to conduct their research works. It’s used in recruiting people for clinical trials through mobile phones. However, among its various products and services in healthcare, the Apple Watch remains Apple’s main product. The smart watch, which is designed to track physical activities, monitor heart rate, alert on fall detections, integration with third-party health applications, detect irregularities with the heart’s rhythm through an electrocardiogram (to name a few features), is a fascinating wearable device. The tech giant is also working on a software called ‘Apple Health Records’ that will help patients store  their medical information like lab results and other medical history in their iPhones.

Moreover, Apple’s iOS and iPadOS applications allow patients to stay in touch with their care teams when at home or in the office. In a move to create high powered AI algorithms with minimal local power, Apple paid $200M to a Seattle tech company, Xnor.ai. Over the last five years, the organization has developed a large internal team of doctors, health coaches, and engineers.

Microsoft

Microsoft cloud is carrying out trials on healthcare amidst the Covid-19 pandemic that has drawn attention to the significance of interoperability, making it the right time to test its tools. The tech giant’s healthcare clouds are sets of tools that bring together existing Microsoft services like Teams, Azure IoT, and chatbots, which is expected to help providers to better coordinate care and streamline more efficient telehealth implementation.

In an attempt to improve diagnostics and accelerate reliable testing, Microsoft has partnered with Adaptive Biotechnologies to develop technology for mapping and measuring the immune response to the coronavirus. Recently, the organization   announced a $40M program called ‘AI for Health’ to study the use of artificial intelligence in advance medical research to solve global health issues.

In 2019, Microsoft released Azure API for FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) to become the first cloud provider with a fully managed enterprise-grade service for health data in the FHIR format. The tech giant’s booking application allows clinicians to smoothly engage with patients without any hindrance in their workflow. The app is integrated into Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare through the Teams collaboration platform that lets doctors schedule and virtually meets within Teams.

Microsoft’s Dynamics 365 tools allow clinicians design personalized care plans, proactively contact patients, and virtually meet patients via Microsoft’s Azure IoT. Azure IoT helps in exchanging real-time data between medical devices that helps hospitals to immediately respond to emergency situations by cutting on readmission procedures as well as reduces costs for clinicians as well as the patients.

Microsoft’s strategy to combat with the competition is also noticeable. It is displaying itself as providers’ partners and not a competitive threat. According to Engadget, the tech giant’s Cloud for Healthcare is also available as a free six-month trial for providers.

Google

Google’s commitment towards healthcare can be seen through its various services including Google Search, Maps, Assistant, Fit, and WearOS Smartwatches. It is further studying the use of artificial intelligence to assist in cancer diagnosis, predicting patient outcomes, preventing blindness, and a lot more to improve patient care. It also believes  that its excellence in cashing in on AI can create a new paradigm to diagnose and treat diseases.

Google Cloud also added a voice-enabled digital assistant EHR called Suki. This helps clinicians to perform their administrative tasks by simplifying the documentation process. According to reports, it has reduced the documentation time from 13 minutes to 3 minutes.

The tech giant has developed three platforms dedicated to three different sectors in healthcare – Verily, DeepMind, and Calico.

Verily: This aims to improve healthcare through analytics tools, interventions, and research by dint of using data. It is responsible for partnering with healthcare institutions and look for spaces to apply AI through its wearable device Study Watch. Apart from setting labs to work beside startups Freenome and Culture Robotics, Verily plans international expansion with an $800M investment from Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings. It has also invested as a limited partner in Medixci Ventures.

DeepMind: Acquired by Google for $500M+, DeepMind’s prime goal is to look for ways to apply artificial intelligence into healthcare. It works in collaboration with National Health Service (NHS) institutions and exclusively researches on artificial intelligence.

Calico: This also uses artificial intelligence and is customized to exclusively research and work on age-related diseases. It uses AI to make sense of large datasets and to automate certain lab processes.

Google has largely invested in genomics, clinical research, insurance and benefits. The tech giant’s health head David Feinberg believes that Google is already a health company – that health is in the company’s DNA. The company is invested in the belief that the future of healthcare would be structured data and artificial intelligence.- a view that’s shared by most players in the space.

Facebook

Social media and healthcare make a good pair (if we had any doubts about this, COVID has laid those to rest). In the wake of the pandemic, two-thirds of people use the internet to self-diagnose themselves. Facebook eventually has taken this opportunity to boost timely factual information for patients in need of guidance. This apparently gives ways to social media go hand in hand with healthcare.

In an attempt to tackle the Covid-19 crisis and make inroads into healthcare, Facebook has released new visualizations and datasets along with a new survey to help researchers and healthcare providers. Its Covid-19 map and dashboard, for instance, consist of international results from Facebook’s symptom survey that informs the public sector response to Covid-19. The map shows the travel pattern between countries and states to understand the impact and spread of coronavirus.

Then there’s Oculus, Facebook’s virtual reality device, which is used in hospitals to simulate pediatric emergencies to train doctors and medical students. Its ‘Data for Good’ is an initiative for giving access to data to its partners to help make progress on major social issues. Recently the social media giant has introduced its Preventive Health’ tool to prompt its users to get regular checkups as well as to connect them to service providers.

One of Facebook’s pet health projects is Facebook Preventive Health – a tool for health check-up reminder. It asks for a user’s age and gender to send checkup reminder notifications and suggests nearby sites for flu shots, cancer screenings, and blood pressure tests etc. The tech giant’s strength is its ease of access among a wide range of people, be it rich or poor, rural or urban, healthy or unhealthy allowing it to convey localized information about preventive health with ease. If accepted by a wider population, the Preventive Health app will be a quick and easy way to keep track of screenings and appointments for its 2.4 billion users.

All roads lead to tech

What is clear is that the five Big Tech companies are anchoring their own core business strengths to recreate healthcare services by making headway and associations with new tools and technologies for patients, frontline caretakers. Flush with resources, these organizations have the potential to fund major projects to renovate the products, systems, and processes healthcare professionals use every day. Google, Apple, and Facebook, for instance, are sitting on combined cash reserves of $570bn, or three times the GDP of Greece.

However, two primary questions emerge – one, would the doctors and other service providers be able to adapt quickly and keep up with this revolution? In the short term, that might be a tough ask. But, they may be left with no options but to shift to digital transformation for consumer demands for fast and convenient services.  The other question to ask, in light of the recent antitrust proceedings against these tech companies, is whether they will be allowed a monopoly, or will there finally be a healthier competition, especially in healthcare?

Time will tell.

Date added
19.08.2020

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