The fragmented future of healthcare tech

5 minute read

20 September 2021

By Kristin Polman

Senior Digital Health Associate, Upstart

In August this year, Google announced that it was dismantling Google Health. Originally conceived in 2018 as a group that would unify the tech giant’s healthcare activities, its 570-strong team has now been assigned to other departments. 

Kristin Polman, Senior Digital Health Associate, Upstart, looks at what Google's decision means for the wider healthcare ecosystem. 

Healthcare is hard for everyone, even big tech

In the healthcare business, there are vast numbers of stakeholders including governments, private insurers, health systems, healthcare professionals (HCPs), patients and citizens. Balancing and satisfying the needs of all these actors is a massive challenge, especially when different players are responsible for choosing, using and paying for different technology tools.

As healthcare becomes more data-driven, access to data and alignment between these varied stakeholders becomes an important issue. There are more barriers and a higher cost “of being wrong” in healthcare, which can make projects longer, more expensive and more complex than in other industries. 

The data itself is fragmented across multiple systems so data privacy and security issues must be continually addressed. Google’s applications themselves are highly specialised, ranging from clinical AI tools to detect eye conditions, cardiovascular disease and breast cancer, to consumer tools such as the Fitbit brand and sleep tracking technology integrated with Google’s Nest Hub smart home devices. 

Google has closed health initiatives before in 2011 and again in 2016. In 2021 healthcare remains as difficult as always.

Trust is everything - and you have to earn it

In the current climate, HCPs, patients and citizens are hyper-sensitive about the privacy and security of personal data. In 2017, The UK Information Commissioner’s Office found that DeepMind Health (later a division of Google Health) had not complied with UK data protection laws, a finding that was widely reported in the press at the time, and has been repeated in health tech conversations ever since.

In 2020, heads turned again when Google was reported to have been sourcing patient data through a collaboration with Ascension, one of the largest health systems in the US. The company was even questioned by the U.S. Senate regarding patient data privacy issues surrounding the partnership, although media reports noted the arrangements were technically HIPAA compliant.

Were all these conflicts more trouble than they were worth? Possibly. A drain on Google’s resources, revenues and profits? Almost certainly. The threat of future lawsuits cast a long shadow over the future of Google Health and ultimately helped contribute to its demise, or at least redistribution.

Niche competitors often outcompete broader providers

Healthcare is complex, with hundreds or perhaps thousands of specific niches and pathways that can be improved by technology solutions. Smaller, niche providers are fully committed to their particular spaces and are often directly connected to the stakeholders for whom they are designing (or even co-designing) solutions. 

As we saw with the challenges facing IBM Watson, niche providers can often outcompete large tech providers. When a particular area is the focus of your business, all resources are directed towards a single objective. In larger organisations, there is always the risk that a healthcare product or division will look less profitable than the “core business” and lead to closures or restructuring.

In the UK, we have also seen this with Electronic Patient Records (EPRs). EPRs are used across most of the NHS and hold the majority of patient data. But as Simon Eccles, the NHS’s Chief Clinical Information Officer for Health and Care commented earlier this year,

“Big EPR can’t get it right for all. We need disruptive solutions from smaller IT companies with easy APIs to all systems.”

— Simon Eccles, NHS's Chief Clinical Information Officer

It’s also interesting to note that other tech giants are moving into healthcare taking a more streamlined approach. This includes Amazon which has launched its own healthcare service, Amazon Care.  This a telehealth focused offer where users chat with a medical specialist and a home visit can be arranged if required. To date, it is only available in eight U.S. states and to employees of organisations that offer Amazon Care as part of their benefits plan. 

What now?

No wonder that Google has decided to take a more fragmented approach itself, refocusing investment in more agile, standalone initiatives including the Fitbit brand which Google finally acquired at the start of this year. At the other end of the scale, Google continues to invest in its Care Studio EHR search tool and a plethora of AI tools.

But as the above examples show, the healthcare technology market is a tough nut to crack. Larger companies may have the connections and the clout to grab the attention of healthcare systems, but niche players are more focused and may be better capable of delivering measurable results.  To thrive in this dynamic healthcare ecosystem, the ability to collaborate and build trustworthy relationships is critical. 

This applies equally to big tech and big pharma where strategic partnerships (alongside acquisitions) are more important than ever. The challenge, naturally, is to identify new players that best complement your resources and business model. 

Success also depends on the speed with which you can build these relationships. Can you acquire or align with a breakthrough business before your competitors? Does your in-house innovation team have the bandwidth to research the ever-changing market? Does it need the assistance of third-party experts to demonstrate the value of digital to decision makers higher up the organisation?

This is where Upstart can help. We specialise in guiding our clients through this current phase of healthcare disruption. We also bring a deep understanding of the healthcare ecosystem to the table which enables us to connect larger organisations with more niche players that complement the existing skills and technology mix. 

To find out how your organisation can better collaborate and partner with the next wave of healthcare innovators, get in touch with Upstart TODAY.

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