Tech’s Main Role in Healthcare? To Transform

February 8, 2018 - 8 minutes read

Perhaps nothing will ever rival technology’s omnipresence in every facet of society. Shopping, socializing, entertainment, and work all bear only a shred of semblance to what they were a couple of decades ago.

Healthcare has always received it’s fair share of attention from tech as well. But recently, there’s been a resurgence in interest to disrupt the medical industry, and each tech titan has their own approach.

The Reason for the Resurgence

Previously, tech companies like IBM and Intel focused their MedTech development efforts on enterprise services. But tech’s relationship with the more-than-$3-trillion healthcare industry is evolving to focus on new platforms and paradigms for every player in the industry: doctors, researchers, patients, consumers, and insurers.

Per CB Insights, ten of the biggest U.S. tech companies invested $277 million in healthcare in 2012. Last year, this figure had ballooned to almost $3 billion. Aside from acquisitions and investments, each tech company is employing a unique strategy for refining part of the medical industry.

But why the recent resurgence? John Prendergass, a healthcare investment associate director at Ben Franklin Technology Partners, explains: “The big-picture reason that a lot of these tech companies are getting into healthcare now is because the market is too big, too important, and much too personal to their users for them to ignore.”

Amazon’s Play in Pharmacy and Insurance

There’s no denying that Amazon’s reputation precedes it. The Seattle-based developer of disruption has already shaken up the pharmacy industry before even discretely entering it. Last fall, shares for both Walgreens and CVS Health took a dive from new analyst reports speculating on Amazon’s interest in the prescription drug market.

The logic behind the analyses is sound — with a plethora of inefficiencies to improve and a healthy amount of money flowing through the industry, pharmacy is ripe for Amazon to jump into. Couple this with reports of Amazon acquiring pharmacy-wholesaler licenses in twelve states and news that the company was searching for a pharmaceutical business strategist, and the CVS acquisition of Aetna for $69 billion starts to make more sense.

“CVS would never admit it, but this sort of pivot is Amazon’s doing,” says Trip Miller, a managing partner at Gullane Capital Partners, “What they’re doing now is definitely based on Amazon’s interest.”

More recently, Amazon announced a joint venture with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase: a new healthcare company. While the announcement was deliberately vague, the three companies made it clear that this new initiative stemmed from their frustrations with the U.S. healthcare system. In fact, at least in the beginning, this new company would focus on providing reasonably priced healthcare for the three companies’ employees.

But this didn’t stop shares of major industry players like Anthem and UnitedHealth from plunging more than five percent the next day from the public’s knee-jerk reaction to the news. While the company’s actual plans for both pharmacy and insurance have been left in the dark, Amazon’s name alone is enough to cause vibrations through the medical industry. It will be interesting to see what happens when the behemoth actually takes action.

Alphabet’s Bet on Big Data

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has perhaps been the most active tech titan in the health space recently. So far, their strategy seems to revolve around harnessing data. Last year, the conglomerate acquired Senosis Health, a stealthy app development company that focuses on monitoring health through smartphone sensors.

Alphabet also has its own research organization dedicated to creating new ways to gather and analyze medical data. Formerly called Google Life Sciences when it was a division of Google X, the research team became known as Verily after the creation of Alphabet. In 2017, Verily debuted their Study Watch, a device capable of collecting data for skin temperature, gait, and heart rate.

Verily is utilizing their new watch in a study of theirs called Project Baseline. Besides the watch, the 10,000 volunteers also have to undergo a variety of health tests and utilize sensors to monitor their sleeping habits. Verily hopes to leverage machine learning and all of this data to gain new insight into the development of various diseases. Dr. Jessica Mega, Verily’s chief medical officer, explains the organization’s mission: “We are creating devices that collect information, new molecular assays — and all of that is just to try to understand health at a deeper level.”

An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

“Apple is trying to drag medicine from where it currently takes place — in hospitals and clinics — and move it to the consumer side, to your phone,” explains Malay Gandhi, an executive in residence at venture capital firm Greylock Partners.

Similar to Alphabet, Apple made its fair share of health company acquisitions in 2017, such as Beddit, a sleep tracking app maker. But unlike Alphabet, Apple is more focused on tapping into the consumer side of the industry through its devices already in existence.

2015 marked the introduction of Apple ResearchKit, an app software framework for health researchers to gather meaningful data. The Stanford University School of Medicine leveraged this new development kit to make an app that ended up recruiting more than 54,000 volunteers for a study that tracked their fitness and sleeping schedules.

Building off of this, Stanford is also in charge of the Apple Heart Study. Funded by Apple, this study utilizes the same recruiting app that Stanford developed, but the actual research focuses on testing an Apple Watch app’s ability to recognize heart palpitations often linked with blood clots and possible strokes.

Hype or Actual Improvements to Health?

While every big tech company under the sun has become invested in improving healthcare through one way or another, many medical experts are approaching these developments with cautious optimism. “There’s not one tech company that isn’t involved one way or another,” says Dr. Eric Topol, Director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute. “Many of the companies see this as somewhere between rescue and a great business opportunity.”

For now, whether Amazon, Alphabet, or Apple are onto actual advancements in the healthcare industry is anyone’s guess. Only time will tell if their novel concepts produce transformative results that the medical community ends up embracing.

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