Google is making a push into digital health, including the use of artificial intelligence to analyse patient data, stoking concerns about privacy.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 22, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet and Google, expressed enthusiasm for the possibilities of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare. He said the healthcare industry offers the most potential for using the technology in the next five to 10 years. Google has been developing AI to analyse MRI scans and other patient data to identify diseases and make predictions. The company says this could improve outcomes and lower costs.
According to a 2019 report from research firm Global Market Insights, the global digital health market is set to exceed $504.4 billion by 2025. Key factors driving growth in the industry include advancements in healthcare IT infrastructure and wider adoption of cloud-based storage systems.
Alphabet invested in digital health and leapt into the high-growth wearables segment with a deal to acquire Fitbit for $2.1 billion last year. The acquisition will put Google in direct competition with Apple in wearable fitness tracking. Rick Osterloh, a Senior Vice President who heads Google’s hardware division, said acquiring Fitbit will help advance Google’s goals for its Wear OS smartwatch software. The deal is expected to close this year, but will likely be under close regulatory scrutiny.
In November U.S. lawmakers raised concerns about Google’s access to the health records of tens of millions of Americans, Reuters reports. One of Google’s biggest cloud computing customers in the healthcare industry is Ascension Health. Ascension is the world’s largest Catholic health system and the biggest non-profit health system in the U.S., where it operates 150 hospitals and more than 50 senior living facilities.
Democratic leaders wrote to the CEOs of both companies, asking how they are using and sharing patient data, whether Ascension clients will be allowed to opt out, and whether the data will be used for advertising. The leaders also requested information about other health systems that provide information to Google.
At Davos, Pichai reiterated statements that his company will heed privacy concerns. “When we work with hospitals, the data belongs to the hospitals,” he told a conference panel. “But look at the potential here. Cancer is often missed and the difference in outcome is profound. In lung cancer, for example, five experts agree this way and five agree the other way. We know we can use artificial intelligence to make it better,” he added.