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Analytics Magazine

Healthcare Analytics: Will Apple, Google usher in new era in healthcare analytics?

July/August 2014

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By Rajib Ghosh

2014 is turning out to be an interesting year for the healthcare industry. On the healthcare technology front, this year has spurred 16 acquisitions since Jan. 1. State and federal government health insurance exchanges finally started to operate at scale, offering affordable health insurance coverage to millions. Twenty-six states and Washington, D.C., expanded their Medicaid program as of May 2014, making a large number of patients eligible for the safety net. These are all good things that add to the success of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare.

At the same time we are just beginning to see the impact of the new patient inflow on our health system in the form of emergency room overcrowding [1]. Opponents of the ACA argue that the expansion of coverage without expanding the primary care physician network across the nation will lead to disaster. It remains to be seen which way the pendulum will swing.

Apple’s Big Splash with HealthKit

Meanwhile, Apple has released its HealthKit product that connects multiple devices and apps. It has shown promise to become the health data repository for consumers. In essence this was the promise of the personal health record, or PHR, a promise that rose to the peak of inflated expectation a few years back and then fell to the trough of disillusionment quite quickly [2]. But with Apple’s foray into the space, this time it could be different.

The key promise, however, is the fusion of data from multiple sources and use of analytics to generate user-facing insights. The latter, however, is not there yet. In my last column I argued that the true empowerment of the patient consumer is waiting on the data fusion and analytics to become mainstream. Consumers do not want just a data repository like a PHR. They want actionable information that PHR does not provide.

Apple’s announcement and subsequent action may expedite the health data movement in the right direction, but I am somewhat skeptical regarding data liquidity in Apple’s “walled garden” approach. Now that Apple has taken the lead how far behind can Google be? Recently, Forbes reported that Google is planning its own version of a health platform. By the time this column goes live we will know what Google is concealing up its sleeves. These two giants have all the technology, talent and financial firepower needed to drive analytics into the consumer health space by enabling a platform play for various data-generating devices and apps.

Insights for the consumer, however, will come at a price. As the insights with actionable consumer guidance increase, so too will the level of FDA scrutiny, including requirement for mandatory FDA approval. It is unclear how quickly Apple or Google will go for that since it is an unknown territory for both companies. Having spent a decade in the medical device industry I know first hand the pain points of the manufacturers when their products come under FDA’s purview.

Apple-Epic Partnership

Apple is also partnering with Epic Systems, the giant electronic medical record (EMR) company that controls close to 20 percent of the enterprise EMR market and covers 51 percent of the patients in the United States. This is a smart move by Apple. The ability to send user-generated data to a healthcare professional’s EMR system has always been a key requirement for providers. This “end-to-end” data channel establishes continuum of care, which acts as the building block for analytics-driven population health management (PHM) initiatives.

Since the introduction of the iPhone, Apple products have enjoyed a widespread adoption among healthcare professionals. A 2013 study by the Black Book Rankings found that among physicians who use medical apps on their smartphones, 68 percent used iPhones while 31 percent used Android devices. Also, 59 percent of physicians accessed apps from their tablet, and most of those users prefer iPad. Among U.S. consumers, Apple has lost some ground recently to its key competitor, Google Android, but still commands a large consumer following.

When a system enjoys large market share both among patients and providers and the system connects with the largest EMR company in the country, we can expect seamless bi-directional data flow to reach critical mass. This is a prerequisite to build a cloud-based analytics solution that can leverage data hubs at both ends of the flow.

This is the reason why Apple’s HealthKit introduction is a key phenomenon, albeit it does not do much in its early incarnation. If Google wants to become a serious player in the healthcare field beyond fitness lovers, they have to think in the same direction as well. Once that happens imagine what sort of revolution the rivalry of these technology companies can usher in!

The health data acquisition market is still fragmented, and as a result EMR companies have not shown much interest in opening up their data repository to those players. If Apple and Google can now turn the table and make this a true platform play using their controlling stakes in the mobile device market, then it becomes meaningful for the EMR companies to forge powerful partnerships with one or both of them. In turn that will create the unification of episodic data and continuous user-generated data – the Holy Grail!

Interoperability standards will be firmed up and data security solutions will emerge. Most importantly, patients and providers will both benefit from the analytics solutions that will get a shot in the arm from a data rich holistic picture of the patient.

So far IBM is the lone warrior creating an ecosystem around its “Watson in the cloud” analytics solution. It still lacks the health data source. So what can Apple, Google, IBM and Epic do together to shake up healthcare? I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about the possibilities.


Rajib Ghosh (rghosh@hotmail.com) is an independent consultant and business advisor with 20 years of technology experience in various industry verticals where he had senior level management roles in software engineering, program management, product management and business and strategy development. Ghosh spent a decade in the U.S. healthcare industry as part of a global ecosystem of medical device manufacturers, medical software companies and telehealth and telemedicine solution providers. He’s held senior positions at Hill-Rom, Solta Medical and Bosch Healthcare. His recent work interest includes public health and the field of IT-enabled sustainable healthcare delivery in the United States as well as emerging nations. Follow Ghosh on twitter @ghosh_r.

REFERENCES

  1. Laura Ungar, “More patients flocking to ERs under Obamacare,” http://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/2014/06/07/patients-flocking-emergency-rooms-obamacare/10181349/
  2. “Hype Cycle for Healthcare Provider Applications, Analytics and Systems,” 2013, Gartner http://www.healthcatalyst.com/health-data-analytics-hype-cycle

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