How big tech is going after your healthcare

Jan. 2, 2018

Apple, Google, Microsoft, and other tech giants have transformed the way billions of us communicate, shop, socialize, and work. Now, as consumers, medical centers and insurers increasingly embrace health-tracking apps, tech companies want a bigger share of the more than $3 trillion spent annually on healthcare in the United States, too. The Apple Heart Study reflects that intensified effort.

The companies are accelerating their efforts to remake healthcare by developing or collaborating on new tools for consumers, patients, doctors, insurers, and medical researchers. And they are increasingly investing in health start-ups.

In the first 11 months of 2017, 10 of the largest tech companies in the United States were involved in healthcare equity deals worth $2.7 billion, up from just $277 million for all of 2012, according to data from CB Insights, a research firm that tracks venture capital and start-ups.

Each tech company is taking its own approach, betting that its core business strengths could ultimately improve people’s health—or at least make healthcare more efficient. Apple, for example, has focused on its consumer products, Microsoft on online storage and analytics services, and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, on data.

Physicians and researchers caution that it is too soon to tell whether novel continuous-monitoring tools, like apps for watches and smartphones, will help reduce disease and prolong lives—or just send more people to doctors for unnecessary tests.

The tech industry is certainly no stranger to health. IBM, Intel, and Microsoft have long provided enterprise services to the healthcare industry. But now they, and other companies, are more visibly focused on creating, or investing in, new kinds of technologies for doctors, patients, and consumers.

This year, Amazon was one of the investors in a financing round for Grail, a cancer-detection start-up, which raised more than $900 million. Apple acquired Beddit, a maker of sleep-tracking technology, for an undisclosed amount.

And Alphabet, perhaps the most active American consumer tech giant in health and biotech, acquired Senosis Health, a developer of apps that use smartphone sensors to monitor certain health signals, also for an undisclosed amount. Alphabet also has a research unit, Verily Life Sciences, dedicated to developing new tools to collect and analyze health data.

This year, Verily introduced a health research device, the Verily Study Watch, with sensors that can collect data on heart rate, gait and skin temperature. Now, the watch is to be used in a research study, called Project Baseline and financed by Verily, to follow about 10,000 volunteers.

Apple is taking a different approach—using its popular iPhone and Apple Watch to help consumers better track and manage their health. In 2015, Apple introduced new software, called Apple ResearchKit, for health researchers. Stanford used it to develop an app to enroll volunteers in a heart study and track their physical activities, sleeping hours, and fitness.

Stanford is also conducting the Apple Heart Study. It is intended to determine whether an app for the Apple Watch can accurately detect irregular heart rhythms—particularly those associated with atrial fibrillation, a condition that can lead to blood clots and strokes. If the app detects irregular heart rhythms, it will send participants a notification and offer them a free video consultation with a doctor. The study is not designed to assess whether people who used the watch app had a reduced incidence of stroke and cardiac death compared with people who did not use the app.

Microsoft, already a major supplier of software and cloud services to medical centers, is also ramping up its health business. This year, the company announced an initiative, Healthcare NeXT, to create products for medical providers and patients using artificial intelligence and cloud services like speech recognition. As part of the effort, Microsoft worked with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to develop digital services intended to reduce drudgery for physicians and improve patients’ experiences. One project involves a virtual assistant that would take notes on conversations between a doctor and a patient, analyze the conversation, and then send a summary to the patient’s electronic medical record. The medical center is also pilot-testing an app that notifies doctors when one of their patients has filled a prescription at a U.P.M.C. pharmacy.

Facebook, too, has been expanding its business and research efforts in the health sector. Last year, Facebook made it more appealing for pharmaceutical companies to advertise their medicines on the platform by introducing a rolling scroll feature where drug makers can list their drug’s side effects in an ad. Such risk disclosures are required by federal drug marketing rules.

And this year, Oculus, the virtual reality gear maker owned by Facebook, teamed up with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to develop V.R. simulations for doctors and medical students to practice handling high-risk pediatric medical emergencies.

Amazon has been less public about its plans in health. But industry analysts have speculated that Amazon could enter the pharmacy business.

Dr. Topol of Scripps said tech companies had an opportunity to remake longstanding, cumbersome systems—like hospital alarms at a patient’s bedside that go off dozens of times every day—and re-envision how healthcare is delivered.

“There’s not one tech company that isn’t involved one way or another,” Dr. Topol said. “Many of the companies see this as somewhere between rescue and a great business opportunity.”

The New York Times has the full story

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