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The Impending Battle over Digital Health

March 25, 2014
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I saw something interesting this week in the health IT twittersphere. Larry Page, co-founder of Google, recently gave a TED talk where he touched upon the potential that lies in an environment where medical records were more freely open for research. Here’s what Page said:

"Wouldn't it be amazing if everyone's medical records were available anonymously to research doctors? When someone accesses your record — a doctor — you could see which doctor accessed it and why. You could maybe learn about what conditions you have. I think if we just did that, we could save 100,000 lives this year."

(Source: Business Insider)

Of course, people in the health information technology industry have been preaching this for years. Still, for a guy of Page’s status to say this, it’s certainly nothing to scoff at.

Page’s words come at an interesting time. Health data tracking is as popular as ever.  Specifically, fitness data gathering from wearable devices is reaching new heights. More than 20 percent of Americans use some form of technology to track their health data, according to the Pew Internet Research Project. Moreover, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) reports that over 10 million health and fitness devices were sold in the U.S. last year, and that number will blossom to 29.5 million sold per year by 2017.

Personally, I think that prediction might be underselling it. I was in the Verizon store a few weeks ago—you’ll recall my never-ending iMessaging issue—and the fitness/health data tracking gear was front-and-center. No joke. I walked into the store and right next to all those fancy looking tablets was an array of Fitbits. 

The main reason that I’m optimistic this “market” is about to explode is the rumors that have been circulating about Page’s Google, and of course, my favorite company in the world, Apple.

Apple has been a rumored participant in this market segment for quite a while and by many accounts, will officially dip its toe in the water this year with “Healthbook.” The product reportedly will go beyond the fitness/activity tracking that has been dominant thus far in wearables. It will reportedly monitor weight, heart rate, blood pressure, nutrition, and blood sugar into one database. Other vital tracking apps are possible as well as interfaces with existing applications—which admittedly would surprise me.

Not to be outdone, Google has already previewed a wearable watch, Android Wear, which has a fitness element. Google is planning on allowing developers to connect fitness apps to the Wear via application programming interfaces (APIs) that will launch later this year, according to MedCityNews. There’s no reason to think that more concrete health data, like what Apple will reportedly offer, won’t be included for tracking in an open Android setting. After all, Google is the company that has tried to monitor glucose levels through tears.

With all of this going on, Page’s words about more open medical data loom large.  It’s important to note that he was speaking offhand and not really giving any indication of the direction of his company. Still, it’s interesting.

Could we see a scenario where digital tracking health data seamlessly integrates with traditional medical data to give a complete patient picture? And could that data then be open for researchers to use to solve some of the greatest medical problems we have as a society?

A blog from really outlined the potential positives of what these two tech giants could do for this already burgeoning market. As Owen Thomas from the website wrote, “Digital health…is incredibly fragmented right now.” Google and Apple are the types of companies that have the power to put these sources of personal health data, combined possibly with medical data, into one place.

This would be vital for integration and data sharing, and as we know, data sharing is vital to the future of healthcare.  Right now, it’s all potential. Issues over data security, reimbursement, and of course, integration, will remain for the foreseeable future. But like many of the things we at Healthcare Informatics cover, it’s pretty exciting to envision what could be.

Please feel free to respond in the comment section below or on Twitter by following me at @HCI_GPerna