Google Health is being dismantled, but Big Tech’s quixotic health ambitions persist

Happy Thursday, readers.

Don’t think of it as a death. Think of it as yet another transition in Big Tech’s seemingly never-ending quest to reshape American health care.

I’m referring to the sudden departure of Google Health chief David Feinberg and the accompanying dissolution of the unified Google Health division reported by Business Insider last week. As my colleague Jeremy Kahn notes, electronic medical records giant Cerner put out a statement last Friday announcing Feinberg as its next CEO. But Google executives say that the unit’s work in health care AI, tech-fueled diagnostics, fitness tracking, and a smorgasbord of medical projects will continue.

What exactly will that look like on a corporate level, and can the firm finally make a tangible difference in American health care when so many other tech giants have failed? That’s a more complicated question with plenty of uncertainty baked into the cake.

Google executives did offer some details on what comes next. Jeff Dean, who heads up the artificial intelligence division Google AI, said that staffers will work on individual projects across separate divisions within the company. “As we’ve broadened our work in health across Google (Search, Cloud, YouTube, Fitbit, …), we have decided to move some @GoogleHeath teams closer to product areas to help with execution while nurturing some earlier stage products and research efforts,” Dean wrote in a Monday tweet.

In essence that amounts to undoing what Google Health was originally designed to accomplish: Take a bunch of ambitious, ragtag health care ideas and bring them together under a single umbrella. “Feinberg, who held the rank of a vice president at Google, was hired with great fanfare in 2018 to head the tech company’s newly formed Google Health arm. The division was supposed to consolidate multiple efforts to break into the health care market and to provide health care–related technology—initiatives already underway in different areas of the company,” Jeremy writes. Now it’s back to a more federated strategy.

Tech giants like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon have all staked out missions to transform medicine. But as impressive as these companies’ sleek apps, algorithms, and services are, breaking into such a fractured and labyrinthian business ecosystem with longstanding players and mountains of regulations is easier said than done. Syncing Fitbit app data with a consumer’s health profile or creating machine learning tools that can help radiologists is one thing; Making a true dent in health care costs and the inner workings of industry players is much more laborious.

But that won’t be stopping Google any time soon, even if its ambitions are structured differently. The health care dream lives on for Big Tech.

Read on for the day’s news, and see you again next Thursday.

Sy Mukherjee


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