It’s been a big year for Google’s parent company Alphabet. Once upon a time, Google’s role in the health world was chiefly associated with "Googling" symptoms, but much has changed for the Silicon Valley giant. This year Google made major moves in the health industry—making waves when it announced a plan to acquire Fitbit and even dipping into the EHR space by demoing a new search feature.
However, its moves are not without controversy. Google’s plans to purchase Fitbit will soon be under the U.S. Department of Justice’s lens. Specifically, the the DOJ will be looking into Google acquiring individuals’ private Fitbit data. Google has also faced lawsuits when it comes to patient data. Nevertheless, Alphabet continues to grow its reach into the health space.
Read on for a look back at Google’s health moves in 2019.
January 4. Kicking off the year, Alphabet’s life science subsidiary Verily announced a staggering $1 billion in new venture funding led by Silver Lake, with participation from Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan and other global investment management firms. Verily said the new money will be put toward building more partnerships, global business development and potential acquisitions.
January 17. The start of the year certainly had a lot of money being thrown around. Toward mid-January, Google agreed to pay $40 million to acquire a still-under-development smartwatch technology from Fossil Group. While the companies did not disclose much about the technology in question, there is reason to believe it is health- or wellness-related.
February 4. Early in the year we got a peek into what Google was planning around EHRs. A Google patent application published by the US Patent and Trademark Office gave a few more details on a predictive EHR system first highlighted by the tech company in May 2018. Google’s system can aggregate and store EHRs for a diverse population, while compiling each individual patient’s records into a single chronological document. A computer or computer system running deep learning models would then use this collection of data to guide predictions of future health events, and to better contextualize the collected data from an individual’s record to highlight pertinent past events on an EHR.
February 4. Google continued to make moves in the hearing loss space, unveiling two apps aimed at tackling accessibility issues for people living with hearing loss. One focuses on quickly translating everyday speech into text, and the second focuses on amplifying sounds for the user.
February 25. Like many tech giants, Google started to look into public health initiatives, launching a new tool to help people locate drug disposal drop-off locations. When a user types in a search related to medication disposals, Google will show permanent disposal locations, such as a pharmacy or hospital.
February 25. Google announced its decision to shut down its Google Fit website, which went into effect in March.
February 25. With a focus on the diabetes space, Verily announced the first real-world clinical use of its machine learning algorithm that screens for diabetes-related diseases, including diabetic retinopathy (DR) and diabetic macular edema (DME).
April 24. Following the shutdown of the Google Fit website, the company announced a new Google Fit app as a stand-alone iOS download for iPhone users. Now the app, which could already pull activity data from LG smartwatches and a handful of third-party fitness apps, will be able to speak with devices and services that connect to Apple Health — for instance, Sleep Cycle, Nike Run Club, Headspace and the Apple Watch itself.
June 28. Early this summer we learned Google and the University of Chicago Medical Center are being sued for violating patients' privacy following a data-sharing partnership that the two parties inked two years ago. A new class-action lawsuit, which was first reported on by the New York Times, accuses the hospital system of sharing with the tech conglomerate patient data that could be identifiable, namely doctors’ notes and the timeframe of their visits.
August 7. It hasn’t been the smoothest road for Google this year. Nearly five years after Alphabet purchased DeepMind, an AI-focused technology entity, it is still continuing to report massive losses on the subsidiary. DeepMind released its latest strategic report, revealing that its losses for the financial year were £470 million, or roughly $571 million.
September 3. Again looking to the hearing space, Google teamed up with Cochlear and GN Hearing to launch a new service that uses Bluetooth Low Energy to stream content from Android devices directly to hearing aids. Customers will be able to use their hearing aids to tap into the audio from their Android device.
September 18. Google announced that the health team at DeepMind is joining Google Health. This wasn’t exactly a surprise. Last November the tech conglomerate announced that DeepMind’s health team would be joining Google Health.
September 30. Former FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf joined Alphabet as its full-time head of strategy and policy for Verily Life Sciences and Google Health.
October 15. Google announced that its Pixel 4 phone will be the first mobile phone with a radar sensor. It's the first public rollout of the company’s Project Soli, an experimental, radar-based gesture tracker co-developed with Infineon. While health was only mentioned very peripherally, its tracking features have potential to be integrated with health.
November 1. After a month of rumors, Google and Fitbit announced that the former officially purchased the wearable giant for roughly $2.1 billion, or $7.35 per share, in cash. Fitbit stressed that its devices will remain platform-agnostic across the Android and iOS ecosystems. Still, a blog post from Google discussing the acquisition made it clear that we can also expect to see some Google wearables in the future.
November 5. Dr. Karen DeSalvo, formerly the national coordinator for Health IT, has been tapped as the first chief health officer at Google. She led a series of successful projects during her two-and-a-half-year public post, some of which were focused on EHR certification for the meaningful use program, interoperability advancements and patient access initiatives.
November 11. News broke that Google has been working on a project involving patient data with health plan Ascension. The program, dubbed Project Nightingale, drew concerns among many patients (and some Ascension employees) about patient privacy. However, it appears the program is HIPAA-compliant.
November 21. Google Health offered a peek at what it's planning for its next set of clinical digital tools. It includes a more integrated charting system that aims to make it easier for doctors to search for a variety of metrics and notes. It will let doctors see recent and historical trends, and query the chart with their own words and typos.
December 11. Google’s acquisition of Fitbit raised antitrust flags from the federal government. The DOJ announced that it will be looking into the deal, specifically Google’s view into individuals’ private data that the acquisition would lend.