Can Big Tech Truly Disrupt Health Care?

Can Big Tech Truly Disrupt Health Care? A digital image a a human head next to a question mark.

Big tech firms, intent on disrupting health care, have hit a rough patch.

Apple’s unpublicized vision of offering primary care services with company-employed physicians and clinics has stalled, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report. The company also announced it would scale back its HealthHabit app that allows users to log fitness goals, manage hypertension and connect with clinicians and coaches, Business Insider reported.

For the second time in a decade, the Google Health business unit was recently dismantled. Google will continue to focus on health tech, but in a more decentralized fashion. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has learned a valuable lesson and is no longer trying to go it alone in health care, notes a recent CB Insights analysis. Instead, Google is focused on forming valuable partnerships and applying its strengths in artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics and data to address a range of problems.

"Companies like Alphabet seem to be charting a new path that depends more on partnerships and realistic applications of technology to address various health problems." Source: CB Insights 2021.

And Amazon, which has been on a mission to slash its employee health costs, is now trying to scale its Amazon Care telehealth program nationally to other employers after its previous Haven joint venture failed after three years.

Bumps in the Road or Something More?

Setbacks like these inevitably elicit I-told-you-so comments from health care and business analysts. Many have long been skeptical of whether big tech firms (or retailers, insurers and other disruptors, for that matter) fully understand the clinical, regulatory and other complexities of the field and how to operate effectively within it.

With this in mind, some again are questioning whether any big tech company — no matter how well-resourced, innovative or connected to consumers — will truly disrupt health care in a grand sense. It’s not so much a question of whether these tech giants could do it, but whether they have the commitment and culture to fully understand the field’s problems and collaborate at much deeper levels before posing and developing solutions.

As for how big tech can make a greater, more consistent impact in health care, experts say several things need to change.

3 Ways Big Tech Needs to Evolve

Focus Less on Moonshots

Big tech companies and others, to their credit, have come into health care with highly ambitious plans. Too often, however, those plans have extended beyond the companies’ core strengths by venturing into areas outside their wheelhouse like providing care, rebuilding electronic health records and offering insurance products. Results generally have been less than game changers. Companies like Alphabet seem to be charting a new path that depends more on partnerships and realistic applications of technology to address various health problems, CB Insights notes.

Work as Partners to Tackle Big Problems

Tech solutions have brought impressive gains in better engaging consumers and giving providers a fuller picture of patients’ health. But in a crisis like the pandemic, the promises made by politicians and private companies as to how big tech was going to solve difficult public health challenges quickly often didn’t materialize. Part of the problem was that Silicon Valley companies didn’t build relationships or appreciate how important it is to understand epidemiology and public health to work with data in the field. The social environment on the ground — how people behave and why — is just as important as the data, Melissa McPheeters, co-director of the Center for Improving the Public’s Health through Informatics at Vanderbilt University, noted in a report from The Verge.

Make Health Care a Core Corporate Mission

Health care only receives part of the attention of big tech CEOs, notes Paddy Padmanabhan, founder of Damo Consulting, a health care digital transformation consulting firm. Likewise, health care efforts often are scattered across the organization, with no cohesive enterprise-level strategy, he writes in a recent Healthcare IT News report. That will need to change if health care is to become central to the mission of big tech firms.

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