Like other industries across the economy, healthcare saw new developments in technology through 2019. Now, as big tech becomes more interested in the industry and looks for ways to partner with hospitals and other medical institutions, these changes are likely to deepen — and they may even transform how these organizations operate.
Here are a few avenues big tech is taking to improve the way hospitals are run.
Big tech moves to enter healthcare
Last year, more than 36 different hospitals partnered with big tech companies for various purposes. Some were looking for better cloud infrastructure to store patient data, while others displayed an interest in advanced tools. For example, Kettering Health Network and Premier Health partnered with Google's parent company Alphabet as part of a plan to build a tech-based rehabilitation center for patients addicted to opioids.
In general, these institutions all want to take advantage of at least one of two resources these technology companies provide — cloud data storage to support new health record systems and cutting-edge data analytics.
The first resource provides medical centers with multiple administrative benefits — the cloud can replace dated storage methods and allow staff to consolidate and standardize patient records. With cloud-based information harvesting, workers can also access those records remotely.
The second resource — new analytics technology — could provide any number of insights. Some hospitals are hoping to use these tools to discover ways to cut costs and make internal processes more efficient, while others want to find new techniques to improve the quality of care.
Big tech is also expanding into healthcare by mergers — Amazon, Alphabet and Apple all made deals last year to purchase digital health startups — that could have meaningful impacts on the software businesses are selling to clinics. Industry experts predict these mergers will have lasting effects — 81 percent of healthcare leaders believe these alliances will cause significant disruption in the industry in the next three years.
At the same time, big tech businesses are also looking to expand their offerings of consumer-facing healthcare products.
Facebook, for example, recently launched a health management system, the Preventive Health tool. Designed to help keep users on top of their health by reminding them about things like medication, vaccinations and flu shots, some privacy experts worry the tool is also a way of collecting and consolidating user health data for other purposes.
Other companies are experimenting with platforms that may have an even bigger impact on medical centers. Amazon recently began a pilot of its own telemedicine service, Amazon Care, for its employees. Experts predict it may be a matter of time before the company starts offering its telehealth infrastructure to hospitals and clinics around the country. If Amazon does so, it would immediately become one of the most prominent players in telemedicine.
Some hope Amazon’s interest in telemedicine could pave the way for the national adoption of the technology. Widely available telemedicine could be transformative — especially for patients who need care from distant specialists and rural patients who don't always have access to nearby healthcare.
Data privacy concerns are hardly unique to healthcare but sector experts remain unconvinced that technology-based organizations would be good stewards of confidential patient data. Significant information breaches, as well as scandals about inappropriate use of customer data, have made some distrustful of technology's ability to safely handle sensitive material.
Some moves by tech businesses have already made medical professionals uncomfortable. For example, Google's Project Nightingale — which has been collecting and analyzing millions of personal health records since 2018 — was struck in secret with Ascension, a St. Louis-based chain of more than 2,600 hospitals. Neither doctors nor patients received notification that Project Nightingale was using their data.
As companies continue to use medical data, concerns over patient privacy will likely grow.
Hospitals are looking to adopt the newest technologies to streamline administrative processes and improve quality of care. Big tech has seen this as a massive opportunity and is now searching for ways to apply its offerings to medical centers.
The most significant changes may be hard to notice in the future. Clinics are likely to continue to move data to the cloud and bring on new analytics tools that identify weak spots in care.
These changes may be both positive and negative for patients and the healthcare industry. While cutting-edge technology may improve hospitals' ability to treat patients, its adoption may also mean giving tech organizations access to sensitive patient information — a possibility that has troubled both privacy experts and medical workers.