America’s healthcare industry is ripe for disruption, and Google parent company Alphabet is leading the charge in wearables, health records, AI and longevity.
Boyden's perspectives on the news and trends that are transforming industries
America’s healthcare system, encompassing hospitals as well as drug makers, pharmacies and insurance firms, is notoriously complex, expensive, and slow to change. The U.S. has the world’s highest healthcare costs among developed nations, comprising 17% of GDP or about $3.6 trillion a year. In this light, the industry’s resistance to change is unsurprising. Likewise, it was only a matter of time before the country’s technology giants would seek to stake a claim and perhaps transform this immense market.
The top five, namely Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft, have all dabbled in healthcare technology to varying degrees, spending billions in the process. Some investments have borne fruit. Amazon’s online pharmacy and telemedicine services have caught on. Both Amazon and Microsoft are expanding their health-related cloud offerings. Apple focuses mainly on devices and software, with health features for its smartwatch and healthcare apps. Meta, having shelved its own smartwatch in June, is focusing on Oculus fitness apps for the moment.
Alphabet surpasses all in its pursuit of the American healthcare market. Its venture capital and private equity arms made about 100 deals between 2019 and 2021. This represents only a quarter of Alphabet’s healthcare and life sciences investments, which total $1.7 billion so far this year, says CB Insights. Alphabet has been recognised for research, ranking fifth in the Nature Index, which tracks articles published in select natural science journals.
Alphabet’s forays into healthcare technology began in 2008, when it launched Google Health, a health records service which was discontinued in 2012. It was then relaunched in 2018 as part of a new Google Health division, meant to include all health-related ventures. The division was dissolved and its parts reorganised back into Google in 2021, but the work continues in four general areas: wearables, health records, AI, and research into extending human longevity, a field known as longevity tech.
Google entered the wearables business in 2019 when it acquired Fitbit, maker of the popular fitness tracker. Some high-profile executive hires that same year affirmed its healthcare ambitions. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) veteran Bakul Patel was appointed Senior Director of Global Digital Health Strategy to help further develop Google’s devices. The company scored a big win earlier this year when a new Fitbit feature, a heart monitor that can detect atrial fibrillation (AFib), earned FDA approval.
Karen DeSalvo, a physician and former National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, was recruited for the new role of Chief Health Officer in 2019. Under her leadership, Google’s latest electronic health record software, Care Studio, aims to tackle the problem of interoperability.
DeepMind, a British AI firm that became an Alphabet subsidiary when it was acquired in 2014, is making strides in the use of AI and machine learning in healthcare, for example using health data to create diagnostic tools. Its AlphaFold AI software, released in 2018, broke new ground by demonstrating high accuracy in protein structure prediction. Alphabet continues to build on the AlphaFold platform. In 2021 it launched another subsidiary, Isomorphic Labs, headed by DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis, to focus on machine learning in drug discovery.
Alphabet’s more far-reaching and experimental healthcare technology ventures peak with its efforts to slow or even halt the aging process. This is the focus of Alphabet subsidiaries Calico, which researches age-related diseases, and Verily, a life science research organisation. They have formed partnerships with firms such as pharmaceutical giant AbbVie and French beauty group L’Oréal, respectively.
Commercially, Alphabet faces stiff competition in wearables and electronic health records. Its projects in AI and longevity either have yet to turn a profit or only recently started to. As The Economist surmises, “In the next decade the challenge will be to show they can graduate from being experiments and vanity projects to something transformative for the firm – and for Americans’ health.”