Healthcare is projected to become a 17 billion dollar industry in 2023, with steady growth to hit almost $28bn by 2027. It’s a lucrative yet underserved space with some unique challenges for big tech companies angling to move in. They’re taking strides to streamline US healthcare and update aging equipment with cutting-edge solutions.
However, tech companies have discovered that progress here hasn’t been linear. Every big name in the tech world, from Alphabet to Microsoft, has experienced some very public missteps. Their goal is to disrupt this slice of the market, but these companies have learned some expensive lessons along the way.
Healthcare is a large and fast-growing industry but is notoriously decentralized and inefficient. The people on both sides of the health equation, patients and care providers are struggling with the system as it is now. It seems to be common sense that advancing technology can streamline healthcare or transition it to a revolutionary new model.
But actually, applying new tech to the old system has proved tricky. In some ways, smaller companies have an advantage here. They tend to focus more tightly on one specific technology or service, as well as having a better understanding of what their niche requires. And they can often pivot quickly when faced with initial feedback on changes. The dedicated medical alert smartwatch without fall detection is a case in point, compared with Apple’s attempt described below to pack all features into one platform.
On the other hand, big tech companies have the advantage of deep financial and intellectual resources. They’ve been able to absorb a few big, expensive failures in the last decade. The bigger the company, the greater its ability should be to learn from mistakes and bounce back with new products and new approaches, but the challenges can be huge.
Google Health, for example, was an attempt to create a centralized repository of personal health records. Patients, doctors, and medical institutions could access this record from anywhere. This could have greatly increased patient convenience and healthcare efficacy – but it failed.
The repository struggled with dirty data that was inconsistent between industries, with some systems using different terminology standards. Some files included lab results and hard numbers; others contained imaging files and narrative descriptions of patient complaints. The responsibility to update records also fell on injured or ill patients, not on providers. Google Health could not resolve these critical issues and was dissolved in 2021.
A different challenge is currently facing Apple and its highly publicized smart watch fall detection. This got off to a troubled start with false alarms and still seems, in some cases, to be over-sensitive and unreliable. Multiple users report that the watch can trigger an alarm when they wave at a friend but completely miss when they actually fall. Meanwhile, emergency services in some areas complain that they are flooded with false alarm calls, wasting their time and diverting resources from people in actual need.
It’s too soon to tell if this is a tech flop in the making or a curable blip during development and roll-out. Apple is basing much of its plans for a share in the healthcare marketplace on the functionality of this and similar software. If it can’t be better calibrated, it may happen that the company has to pivot strategies.
Common pitfalls for big, successful companies entering the healthcare market include trying to reinvent the wheel under their own brand and focusing on complete change instead of an incremental evolution of existing healthcare systems. The companies are often hampered by a general lack of understanding of what patients and healthcare providers need, or they have developed models that don’t scale up or perform in development but fall short in the real world. And the inconsistent data on healthcare remains a big challenge.
The Path Ahead
Big tech companies are nothing, if not persistent. They actively hone their strategies and learn from the missteps of the past. Some acquire smaller healthcare-focused companies and build on their previous work. Their big budgets and advanced manufacturing capabilities can bring smaller, proven models to a wider market. For instance, Amazon has acquired One Medical, a virtual and in-person primary care company. The company is also launching virtual health clinics and setting up mergers for online pharmacies.
Other businesses are focusing on discrete pieces of the very complex healthcare puzzle. For instance, both Google and Microsoft are developing medical AI and machine learning. They aim to integrate AI naturally with the healthcare system, potentially leading to AI-supported diagnostics and patient care. Meanwhile, Apple is exploring the wider implementation of health sensors in its fleet of wearable devices.
Some companies, like Microsoft, focus on the tech side of healthcare operations. This includes cloud data storage, security solutions, and streamlined databases. Strategies using their core competencies let companies ease into the market with less financial risk.
Finally and more generally, big tech is building better-working relationships within the healthcare industry, learning to navigate the web of ever-changing state and federal regulations regarding data privacy and medical care standards – which, for all its flaws, the existing healthcare system has evolved to comply with.
Healthcare providers take on legal and ethical risks when they adopt new technology, and given some of the tech setbacks in the past, many providers are wary of trying something new. However, big companies continue to iterate their products and strategies. If they can augment current healthcare provider systems, they can gain real traction in an underserved market that could benefit patients with better efficiency.