By John P. Desmond, AI Trends Editor
Google is making a more pronounced move into healthcare, leveraging its power to acquire companies and to use AI technology to disrupt the industry.
From an investment point of view, the company’s move has attracted attention. Google now has 57 digital health startups in its portfolio, according to a recent account in The Motley Fool. While the November 2019 acquisition of Fitbit generated headlines, “its investments and partnerships with healthcare service providers are more likely to be the gateway to the next big thing,” the authors stated.
The company’s investments have been focused on improving electronic health records (EHRs), diagnostic capabilities, bundling healthcare services in the cloud, and leveraging its AI expertise to advance scientific research.
Alphabet, the parent company of Google, formed a partnership with EHR provider Meditech in 2019, making its EHRs available through Google Cloud as a subscription service. This was aimed at alleviating manual tasks for clinicians, such as charting, billing, and data entry. However, the EHR market share leader Epic, abandoned a project with Google last January after a privacy concern. Epic then chose to work with Microsoft’s Azure and Amazon Web Services. “For Google to be successful in this area, it will have to shake off the data privacy stigma that seems to follow it from project to project,” the Motley Fool authors stated.
Alphabet is aiming to become a platform for developers building healthcare solutions, as well. The company’s Cloud Healthcare API allows developers to build products in the cloud that can transfer data securely across multiple sources and leverage Alphabet’s machine learning and analytics.
In research, Alphabet can demonstrate its power in AI technology. The company’s life sciences arm, Verily, initiated a project in 2017 to describe a “baseline” for human health. By creating a platform and tools—including wearables—to collect health data, the company hopes to speed up future clinical trials. In 2019, four major pharmaceutical companies signed on to utilize the work. “This makes Alphabet’s pending $2.1 billion acquisition of Fitbit much clearer,” the authors stated. Fitbit users generate health care the company can use to create a more robust model for testing and developing new drugs.
“While it may not be competing directly with legacy healthcare companies, Alphabet is slowly pulling the industry into its own circle of competence,” the authors stated. “Hosting EHRs in the cloud, offering enhanced search and predictive capabilities, and automating diagnostic capabilities creates a value proposition that cash-strapped health systems and cost-conscious insurers will find hard to ignore.”
New Google Tools Help Extract Patient Info from Text Notes
Among Google’s recent announcements in health was a suite of fully-managed AI tools including the Healthcare Natural Language API and AutoML Entity Extraction for Healthcare. These are aimed at assisting healthcare professionals with reviewing and analyzing large volumes of medication documents.
Google Cloud solutions provider, SADA, said in an account in HIT Infrastructure that the new tools will help healthcare customers implement medical analysis projects in days.
“The richest information about the health of a patient is typically not found within the structured fields of a medical record system. Instead, it is contained within the lengthy free-text notes that a clinician either types or dictates into the medical record in the course of care,” stated Michael Ames, Sr., director healthcare and life sciences at SADA. “I’m very excited for the opportunities this suite of Healthcare Natural Language AI tools from Google Cloud will create.”
CB Insights Report Outlines Google’s Plan to Reinvent the Healthcare Industry
A recent report from CBInsights entitled, “How Google Plans to Use AI to Reinvent the $3 Trillion US Healthcare Industry,” states that as Google enters healthcare, it is leaning heavily on its expertise in AI. “Health data is getting digitized and structured, from a new electronic record standard to imaging to DNA sequencing. Google is both helping speed up this process by creating new means of ingesting health data and betting that it can use AI to make sense
of the data quickly and potentially more accurately than current methods,” the report states. “Among the big 5 tech giants (Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon), Google emphasizes its progress on machine learning much more than the rest.”
The three Google subsidiaries most focused on healthcare are Verily, DeepMind, and Calico, the authors state. Verily is focused on using data to improve healthcare with analytics tools, interventions and research. The unit is run by Andrew Conrad, a geneticist, who co-founded the National Genetics Institute. He has recruited a multidisciplinary team of chemists, doctors, engineers, behavioral scientists and data scientists to research health and disease.
The Study Watch, announced by Verily in April 2017, is working through FDA approvals as a medical device. A collaboration with iRhythm, aims at helping to detect irregular heartbeats, called atrial fibrillation (AFib), estimated to be a condition of 10 million Americans. “Our objective is clear: work together to develop best-in-class solutions for improved screening, diagnosis and management of patients with AFib,” stated Dr. William Marks, Head of Clinical Science for Verily in a recent press release.
Diabetes detection and management is another major healthcare focus for Google, with the condition affecting 30 million in the US presenting an opportunity. In a joint venture with Sanofi, Verily has recently launched Onduo, its virtual diabetes management program. The two companies invested $500 million into the solution in 2016, with the goal of using sensors and coaching,to help type 2 diabetics manage their condition. However, the current status of the partnership is unclear with new Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson stating in December 2019 that the company has “over-invested” in the joint venture.
Trust is an issue that will hound Google as it pursues its healthcare initiatives, the CB Insight report suggested. “Consumers’ trust in Google’s ability to keep their personal data private is vital,” the report states. The fact that Google generates most of its revenue from advertising enhanced by its collection of personal information, poses a challenge. In a survey, CB Insights found that 53 percent of respondents trusted Google “Not at all/Not very much” to keep their health data private.