Google overhauls internal strategy, but adds plenty of health tools in 2021

Google’s healthcare business looks a lot different at the end of 2021 compared with the beginning of the year. 

The tech giant overhauled its strategy this year, eventually dismantling its health division. However, it still released a variety of tools for both consumers and clinicians, with a particular focus on healthcare accessibility and managing COVID-19 as the pandemic moved into its second calendar year. 

Google Health dissolves

In June, an Insider report revealed Google was shaking up its health team, moving more than 130 of its about 700 Google Health employees to Search and the new Fitbit group. 

Months later, Google Health vice president Dr. David Feinberg announced he was stepping down to take on the CEO role at EHR company Cerner. Shortly after, Insider obtained an internal memo detailing the breakup of the health division, with the company moving initiatives housed there to more general areas. 

But a Google spokesperson noted at the time that the tech giant had put large investments into health “across the company,” signaling a continued interest in the space spread across the organization.

Fitbit finale

At the very beginning of 2021, Google finally completed its acquisition of Fitbit, the popular health- and fitness-tracking wearable. The $2.1 billion deal was first announced in late 2019, but was held up by several regulatory investigations.

“On our own, we pushed the bounds of what was possible from the wrist, pioneering step, heart rate, sleep and stress tracking,” Fitbit CEO and cofounder James Park wrote when the deal closed. “With access to Google’s incredible resources, knowledge and global platform, the possibilities are truly limitless.”

The fitness tracker has begun to play a role at Google’s sister company, Verily, which is focused on the life sciences space. It announced in September that its digital chronic disease management platform, Onduo, would offer Fitbit devices and Fitbit premium alongside its program. 

But Google could have its own wearable aspirations outside the Fitbit brand. Early this month, Insider reported the company was working on its own smartwatch, codenamed “Rohan,” that it plans to launch next year. 

Accessibility and COVID-19 tools

As COVID-19 continued to upend daily life across the globe in 2021, Google released a variety of tools aimed at helping people navigate the pandemic.

It began the year with an effort focused on vaccine distribution, allowing users to find vaccination sites and information on Maps and Search. It also released tools that showed travel restrictions and advisories, helped people find testing centers, hospital resources and vaccination sites in India as cases spiked, and let users check how crowded public transit is to allow for social distancing. 

The tech giant also launched its COVID Card API for Android, which can store and display digital COVID-19 test and vaccine information.

In the more general health and social determinants spaces, Google added the ability to look up which insurance plans a provider will take and what languages they speak in the office to Search earlier this month. It also rolled out a site that can help people find information on food banks, pantries and school lunch programs. 

Accessibility for people with disabilities was also a focus this year. On Android, Google released a new feature called Camera Switches that allows those with speech and motor impairments to use their smartphone with self-selected facial gestures and eye movements. Its Project Relate app, which was released for testing by English-speaking users in November, aims to help people with speech impairments more easily communicate through real-time text transcription and a voice assistant. 

Clinician support

In February, Google launched Care Studio, a search tool for clinicians that helps them more efficiently find data in EHRs. It decided to pull the plug on Streams, a similar app that has been used in the U.K.’s National Health Service, to focus its efforts on Care Studio.

“I’m really excited because one of the big challenges that we see in the healthcare space for providers is context switching. There’s so much information to try to understand in the moment and make split-second decisions. Clinicians have to do this all day long,” Paul Muret, vice president of Care Studio, told MobiHealthNews when the mobile version was released in October.

“It can get completely overwhelming for them. And so being able to provide that additional summarization and searchable information so they can go ask a question whenever they need to is super critical.”

In July, Google Cloud released its Healthcare Data Engine, which the company pitched as a way for researchers and providers to bring together data from a variety of sources, like EHRs, claims data and trial results. 

During a panel discussion at the Vatican Conference on health in May, then-VP Feinberg said partnerships between big tech companies and clinicians can build trust in their tools, as well as help providers do their jobs effectively.

“So, this isn’t Google taking care of you. This is Google on an information page saying, in the U.K., this is what the NHS says, or in the U.S., this is what Mayo Clinic says, or your Ascension doctor saying to you, this tool is allowing me to take better care of you, or in our partnership with Mayo on a radiotherapy for cancer patients,” he said.

“We need to provide tools to those frontline people, so they all have capes on.”

 

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