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June 5, 2020

Weekly line: Big Tech is driving even deeper into health care amid Covid-19

Daily Briefing

    America's new coronavirus epidemic drove Big Tech companies that already were looking to shake up health care even farther into the industry—and have set up some new opportunities for the tech giants. Here are four areas where Big Tech companies could make their next pushes in health care.

    IT resources to support your Covid-19 response

    1. Contact tracing—and tracking infectious disease outbreaks in the workplace

    Perhaps the most visible way that Big Tech companies have moved to address the country's Covid-19 epidemic is with contact tracing efforts. For example, Apple and Google last month began rolling out a tool that uses Bluetooth on people's smartphones to alert them if they might have been within close proximity of someone who has tested positive for the new coronavirus. The tool is intended to help public health officials with state- and agency-based efforts to curb the new coronavirus' spread, though it's worth noting some officials have raised concerns that steps Apple and Google have taken to address users' privacy concerns with the tool could inhibit its effectiveness. 

    Still, experts expect tech companies will look to expand on public contact tracing initiatives by launching similar efforts aimed at private enterprises—particularly as businesses, including health systems and hospitals, look to bring their employees back to the workplace. CNBC's Kif Leswing notes that a multitude of tech companies are "repurposing existing technology" and "building apps and wearables for businesses to track and stop the spread of [the new] coronavirus among employees in the workplace."

    Laura Becker, an analyst who focuses on employee experience and benefits for IDC, told Leswing that digital contact tracing for infectious diseases in the workplace represents a new business sector that could turn into a multi-billion dollar industry. "Looking at larger organizations that would probably be more apt to institute something like this, like organizations that employ over 1,000 people, and if I take a percentage of those that don't opt in, even with all of those assumptions, I'm still looking at like a $4.3 billion potential market for this," she said.

    But privacy issues could affect these efforts, as well. Legal experts have cautioned that employers will need to be careful not to violate privacy and employment laws when implementing contact tracing initiatives for their workers, such as laws that protect individuals' personal health data.

    2. Remote monitoring for patients with Covid-19—and more

    Another way tech companies have sought to address Covid-19 in recent months is by working with health systems and hospitals to launch remote monitoring programs for patients infected with the new coronavirus. The programs use technologies such as chatbots, iPads and iPhones, videoconferencing platforms, and wearable devices to help providers diagnose, monitor, and treat Covid-19 patients while protecting them from exposure to the new coronavirus. Many of those efforts have seen success—and experts say they could set the stage for tech companies to launch new types of remote monitoring services for patients with other conditions, as well. 

    Particularly, experts are eyeing the potential for providers to use data collected by wearable devices, such as Apple's Apple Watch and Google-owned FitBit, to monitor patients with heart disease and diabetes. Clinical trials evaluating how those devices can be used to monitor people's heart rhythms already are underway. Providers also are taking steps to see how they can adapt the remote monitoring programs they've launched for Covid-19 patients for patients with chronic conditions beyond heart disease and diabetes.

    For instance, David Putrino, director of rehabilitation innovation at Mount Sinai Health System, told FierceHealthcare's Heather Landi that his team is working to adapt their Covid-19 remoting monitoring platform into several different iterations for patients with chronic health conditions.

    Todd Czartoski—the chief executive of telehealth and chief medical technology officer at Providence St. Joseph Health, which also launched a remote monitoring program for Covid-19 patients—during FierceHealthcare's Coronavirus Virtual Roundtable series said, "We think remote monitoring is really here to stay." He added, "Being able to have multiple data points on [patients], literally every day, to manage patients with chronic diseases is way more effective than a patient going to see a doctor once every six months to see how their blood pressure or diabetes is doing."

    3. Telehealth expansions

    Along those same lines, experts predict that Big Tech companies could look to capitalize on the recent, large-scale shift to telehealth that's been driven by the new coronavirus epidemic. 

    A FAIR Health report released this month showed that, across the United States, insurance claims for telehealth services increased by 4,347% in March 2020 when compared with March 2019, according to HealthLeaders Media's Mandy Roth. Further, Forrester in a recent report predicted there could be more than one billion virtual health care visits conducted in the United States by the end of this year.

    Ultimately, providers and experts say the shift helps to broaden patients' access to care—which could help to improve public health. "What's powerful about these technologies [is] that they can reach anyone in the world," Michael Snyder, a professor and chair of genetics at Stanford School of Medicine said during a recent webinar hosted by FierceHealthcare.

    And as providers look to scale-up their telehealth services, tech companies will have a chance to play an integral role in creating new platforms and devices to help them do so.

    4. A focus on health care information sharing

    Another area where Big Tech companies already have jumped in amid the Covid-19 epidemic—and where they're looking to make more progress—is in health information sharing. Companies such as Amazon in recent months have launched databases aimed at sharing research and other data regarding the new coronavirus and helping providers access needed protective equipment and medical supplies. Meanwhile, Microsoft is working with health care companies to make de-identified patient data available to researchers to conduct virtual clinical studies on Covid-19. 

    But tech companies aren't likely to stop there.

    John Borthwick—a New York-based venture capital investor who is leading the Covid-19 Technology Task Force, which is a cohort consisting of representatives from major tech companies, the White House, and industry investors—recently said the group is focused on continuing efforts to promote information sharing and drive connections throughout the health care industry.

    Separately, Google Health VP David Feinberg told CB Insights that he "is focusing his efforts on Google's core expertise in search, looking to make it easier for doctors to search medical records and improve the quality of health-related search results for consumers across Google and YouTube." According to Becker's Health IT's Laura Dyrda, those efforts could include "making EHR searches and workflows easier to navigate" for providers, bolstering search technologies for health care researchers, and working to improve search tools for individuals looking for information regarding mental health.

    Policy changes likely needed

    The new coronavirus' impact on the health care industry will be a must-watch item for months—and years—to come. But it's also worth noting that, for many of these efforts to become fully integrated into the U.S. health care system, experts say policymakers would need to take action to improve broadband access across the country and set clear national standards to protect individuals' privacy as we move toward a greater era of health surveillance. In addition, providers say policymakers would need to make permanent at least some of the telehealth reimbursement and regulation changes that the Trump administration has made amid the epidemic—a move that both President Trump and CMS Administrator Seema Verma are considering.

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