Google Isn't Looking To Revolutionize Health Care, It Just Wants To Improve On The Status Quo

Jason Alden/Bloomberg/getty

To appreciate how much Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is betting on health care, here are a few of the initiatives and subsidiaries the company has formed or acquired: Verily (new technologies for diagnosing, managing and treating diseases), Google Fit (tracking and encouraging healthier lifestyles), Calico (research aimed at treating and even slowing aging), DeepMind Health (applying AI to health and health care), Senosis (turning smartphones into health monitors) and the recently acquired Fitbit (activity tracking).

While these efforts have to a large extent worked independently of one another, Google seems determined to unify them under its "Google Health" initiative. If the company succeeds in creating an interwoven set of software, data and hardware tools and services, it could become one of the most influential players in health care. Unlike Amazon, which seems aimed at creating an alternative to what today's health care organizations offer, Google appears determined to become an essential supplier to those organizations.

Google's most visible efforts so far have centered on using artificial intelligence and other advanced data-analysis technologies to organize and make use of patient data at large health care organizations. Virtually everyone in health care agrees that somewhere hidden away in patients' records are new insights into how to catch, manage and treat illness more effectively and at lower cost. "Google is focused on getting the value out of what's in health care organizations' data," says Maia Hightower, the University of Utah's chief medical information officer.

Google has already gotten into hot water over its contracts to handle patient data for hospitals. Although such sharing doesn't appear to violate patient confidentiality regulations—health care organizations are allowed to pass data to the health care suppliers they work with as long as they don't further share it—many people object to their personal medical information ending up in the hands of a company known for gathering data on its users and re-selling it to others. Some patients and privacy advocacy groups charge that giving Google access to medical records is a violation of privacy.

Google's ventures in health monitoring have been less controversial. Verily, for instance, makes devices that monitor the blood-sugar level of people with diabetes and it embeds tiny electronic circuits in contact lenses, to track eye disease, and even in baby diapers, to alert parents of the need for a change. Fitbit and Google Fit fall into this category as well.

One of Google's biggest and possibly most ambitious health-related efforts is simply that of returning better information when someone Googles a health concern. That may sound like old hat, but Google wants such searches to provide a critical first step in getting a diagnosis, finding the right medical help and learning about good self-care practices. Compared to the hodge-podge of good and dubious information that pops up in health searches now, that would be a big step forward.