Google said Friday it has acquired Fitbit, the company famous for its flagship bracelet that tracks heart rate, distance traveled and quality of sleep, in a $2.1 billion deal. It’s a small step for Google, whose device portfolio pales in comparison to the other tech giants, but signals a surge of interest in the growing health-tech industry.
The health care industry is worth more than $3 trillion dollars annually. That figure is expected to rise exponentially over the next five years, especially with the advent of telehealth, by which doctors can see patients via video call instead of in-person.
“The idea here is, how do we improve home-based digital monitoring of heart patients?” said Vin Gupta, a pulmonologist and professor at University of Washington Medicine, citing one example of where researchers see the technology headed. “How do we get useful information about how they live at home that is hard to parse out in a 15-minute visit?”
To improve the accuracy of health data collected from wearable technology such as the Fitbit and Apple Watch, and to placate possibly the biggest skeptics of health tech, companies have been scooping up doctors from medical organizations around the country.
“As we see some of the big tech companies try to dip their feet into the health care world, they obviously are going to need that expertise in order to try to do it right,” said Rod Tarrago, the chief medical information officer at Seattle Children’s. “It’s a combination of certainly providing that legitimacy … but mostly, you want to have some knowledge of the industry when you’re building a product for that industry.”
Last month Apple hired Dr. Raphael Bernier, then-executive director of Seattle Children’s Autism Center, according to three sources.
It’s just the latest such move. Apple employed at least a dozen doctors in 2018, according to CNBC. A LinkedIn search shows a handful of medical professionals in the Seattle area who consult or otherwise work with Apple, including Dr. Alexis Beatty, a cardiologist from University of Washington.
Amazon, meanwhile, employs cardiologist Maulik Majmudar and physician Ben Green, the former regional medical director at Landmark Health in Seattle. Apple declined to comment on personnel matters, and Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.
But interest in using technology to improve medical care predates telehealth and wearables, according to Annette Estes, director of University of Washington’s Autism Center. She has been consulting with individual software engineers looking to improve autism treatments for decades.
“There’s a lot of that grassroots kind of interest from employees at Google or Microsoft,” Estes said. “Autism affects one of 59 people. That means a lot of people, just by chance alone, who work at a big company are going to have kids with autism. That’s a constituent group in all big companies of parents who really share a unique, challenging experience.”
Data accuracy is paramount for physicians like Gupta, who see some patients across the country via telehealth in place of 15-minute checkups at the office.
“I’m relying on my patients to be a good historian … you need precision to give good care,” Gupta said. “If that televisit can be bolstered by data from [a smart] watch or a smart inhaler sensor, that is incredible.”
Some partnerships bridging the health and tech sectors emerged last year. Uber, the ride-hailing app, tapped into the medical market by launching Uber Health after sifting through pick-up and drop-off data. The program would partner with certain health care organizations to allow employees to book rides to doctor appointments on the behalf of patients, ideally eliminating appointment no-shows.
Last month, Devoted Health, a Massachusetts-based insurer, was the first Medicare Advantage plan to offer steep discounts on Apple Watch as a health tracker.
“Digital health, telehealth, is essentially changing the way we care of our patients when they’re out of the hospital,” Gupta said. “Our patient populations are demanding it.”