Big Tech jockeys for position in rush to health data primacy

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According to an estimate, 30% of the total volume of data in the world is generated by the health sector, offering detailed information about who and how we are.

And the volume of healthcare data will grow, according to this study by RBC Capital Markets, much faster than the data generated by the manufacturing, finance and entertainment sectors.

Making sense of it will therefore be a growing but lucrative challenge. Sensing this opportunity, Big Tech is turning in circles, convinced that its thinking about Silicon Valley – whether it’s organizing vast amounts of information or harnessing artificial intelligence to fuel new discoveries – will spark a revolution in health care.

“Our north star, in some ways, is how we can build tools that give providers a better experience in terms of a more complete understanding of who their patients are,” says Peter Clardy, senior clinical specialist at Google.

The use of electronic health records has sparked a debate over privacy © Cole Burston/Bloomberg

Figures from CB Insights, a market intelligence firm, show nearly $7 billion has been invested in healthcare start-ups by Big Tech’s venture capital arms – Apple, Facebook , Microsoft, Google and Amazon – between the year and a half and the middle of the year. 2021.

Other venture capital funding for digital health start-ups reached nearly $40 billion globally last year, including a record number of deals. Most companies have acquired or invested in leveraging data to create efficiencies in the pharmaceutical industry.

This renewed interest, CB Insights concludes, has been driven by the growing consumerization of healthcare, driven by smartphones and wearable technology, an explosion of data, new advances in AI and growing awareness. that healthcare costs, especially in the United States, are spiraling out of control.

Amount of digital information in clinical systems

Big Tech’s attention coincides with renewed efforts to make health data accessible in ways that were previously prohibited, or at least restricted. In March 2020, the US government introduced new federal rules designed to make data sharing easier and more common. The rules were opposed by some hospital association groups and Epic, an electronic health records company, which warned of a risk to patient privacy from third-party apps.

The new rules, however, were welcomed by technology groups and Cerner, another provider of electronic health records, which said existing laws that allowed patients access to their data were not working. “Despite great advances in the digitization of health records over the past decade, barriers remain to enable the free flow and exchange of information,” Cerner says. “Consumers should have the right to access the health information their providers hold about them and to dictate where they want it to go.”

The attractions for tech companies are clear: they view data interoperability as central to their strategy of providing tools to healthcare providers, as it lowers the barriers to performing a wide range of services. applications and services. This has led to the widespread adoption of a data standard, Healthcare Rapid Interoperability Resources, or Fhir, with engineers from major tech companies participating in development events that shape the way data can become interoperable between health systems.

“These powerful standards have arrived and unlocked the ability to gather health information in ways that weren’t possible before,” says Clardy. “This, from Google’s perspective, has also created opportunities for us to use our experience in organizing information and searching through complex information.”

Other Big Tech groups are pursuing similar initiatives to harness the data. Apple has focused on patient monitoring through its devices, such as the Apple Watch. Last June, it added functionality allowing iPhone users to directly share health data collected through the device, such as sleep patterns and exercise, with healthcare networks.

Facebook, through its virtual reality division Oculus, works with hospitals on training, while its social network is used for research and prevention efforts, prompting users to undergo routine checks.

Microsoft used its cloud platform, Azure, to host Fhir-compliant applications for data capture, cleaning and analysis. Last April, the company announced an agreement to acquire voice technology company Nuance in a deal worth $16 billion, giving it powerful natural language processing capabilities, such as the ability to record and analyze a physician’s discussion of symptoms.

Microsoft's Nuance voice technology can analyze doctors' discussions of symptoms
Microsoft’s Nuance voice technology can analyze doctors’ discussions of symptoms © Tiffany Hagler-Geard/Bloomberg

Amazon is leveraging its logistics prowess to improve the supply chain, while leveraging its cloud computing division, AWS, to power digital services such as telemedicine. For that, it used its own workers as a test bed, offering remote care to American employees.

The free flow of data between these new applications promotes the ability to conduct studies at a scale and speed not previously possible. It allows for more accurate predictive care to prevent people from getting sick in the first place and for less guesswork about treatments when they do. It also means that breakthrough treatments can be created by AI algorithms and the social determinants of health can be better understood.

Telemedicine is a growth area for Amazon's cloud computing arm
Telemedicine is a growth area for Amazon’s cloud computing arm © Noah Berger/Getty Images

Data interoperability could also have profound effects in the developing world, says Steve MacFeely, director of data and analytics at the World Health Organization. According to the International Telecommunication Union, almost the entire population of the world has access to mobile broadband, which means data speeds of 3G or better. While rural Africa still lags behind the rest of the world, it is improving, allowing these advances in health data to be extended to regions where record keeping has been hampered by a lack of technology and connectivity.

“The whole concept of data itself has changed,” says MacFeely. “Data was numbers. Now the data is visual, it’s sound, it’s strings of text. The data deluge is really a by-product of the digital revolution. The big challenge now is interoperability. Of these disparate data, how do you make them speak to each other? »

The answer, he says, could be to tap Big Tech’s expertise — but that comes with a caveat. “There is now a huge concern about data colonialism,” he says, urging Africa to introduce the equivalent of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. “The challenge is that if you do it nationally or regionally, it can still impede the flow of data securely between regions.”

Anil Sethi © Jonathan Piccolo

Yet even with an increased health data movement with Fhir and other initiatives, we can still only scratch the surface, according to a former Apple executive who left his post in 2018 to tackle the problem of data “lost” between health services.

Anil Sethi was the head of Apple’s healthcare efforts but left the company to start Ciitizen, following the wishes of his younger sister, Tanya, who died of cancer. “We robbed Tanya left and right, west coast, east coast, we gave her the best treatment,” Sethi recalled. “She was seen in 17 institutions by two dozen doctors and oncologists. So there was this fragmented breadcrumb that she left behind.

Ciitizen focuses on collecting some of the information collected by physicians but not retained by existing electronic health records shared between health departments. Often the best information about a patient’s condition is in those notes, Sethi says, adding that he finds it frustrating that Big Tech isn’t doing more to fix the problem.

Tech giants are “putting their heads in the sand and hoping there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” he says. “One of the costs of that is that we lose 16,000 people a day to cancer.”

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