Google and Apple want to be your doctor, and that’s a good thing


Craig Federighi, Apple senior vice president of software engineering, speaks about Apple HealthKit. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Health care has always been a sector ripe for disruption, and now with Google and Apple launching new initiatives for digital health, we’re getting a glimpse of how it might actually happen. Wearable tech is turning out to be the back door into the health care sector, mostly through data collected from wearable sensors that enable us to monitor our bodies in real time.

If done right, both Google Fit and Apple’s HealthKit could eventually help to bring down the high costs of health care. All those wearable sensors could one day be transmitting so much data that it’s almost a no-brainer that it will help physicians make better decisions about our conditions and ailments. Instead of stopping by the doctor’s office once a year for a check-up, or only once something’s gone wrong, you will now be checking up on your body weekly, daily, maybe even hourly. And that means that you’d have early warning of emerging problems and be able to take proactive measures in advance.

Google and Apple — as two of the tech sector’s most prominent consumer-facing brands — can do a lot to change the way we think of health care. You could even argue that this innovation in the wearable tech sector is coming at exactly the right time — right after the nation has had a wrenching debate over the future of Obamacare. At the same time, technology trends such as mobile, big data and wearable technology are combining in creative new ways. As a result, when we hear that doctors could be using Google Glass to improve health care by creating “wearable health records,” probably the first reaction is not one of wonder, but rather, that it intuitively makes sense.

And it’s not just Google and Apple that are rethinking health care from the perspective of a young, tech-savvy millennial. Samsung also is thinking of ways to offer digital health tracking to consumers, and WebMD just announced a new initiative to leverage the consumer health tracking trend. When it comes to rethinking health insurance, Oscar has been getting a lot of attention in New York for its direct play to young millennials and its recent venture capital round that values the company at close to $800 million. Go to the Oscar site, though, and you don’t even have the sense that you’re taking care of your health care needs – the interface is that good.

For this new, younger generation of health care consumer – the person who’s used to checking a smartphone throughout the day, carrying on relationships via text message, and going to bed with that smartphone nearby — Google Fit or Apple HealthKit seem to make sense. In the future, instead of taking pictures of our meals and uploading them to Instagram, we may be sending them to our doctors as a quick and easy way to measure our caloric intake. Instead of using SnapChat to send photos to a close circle of friends, we might use a similar type of service to send private photos of ailments (like an allergic rash) to doctors for quick analysis.

That’s the type of mind-set change that companies like Apple and Google can effect.

The only caveat in all this, however, is that breaking into health care is notoriously tough. Just ask Google. Google Fit may sound like something that spontaneously arose out of the wearable tech revolution, but as some have pointed out, it could just be an updated version of Google Health, which died a slow death in 2011. Of course, that was before Obamacare passed, but still. And collecting all that data is great, but there’s a long way between collecting data and transforming that data into actionable information about your health.

Innovative tech companies getting involved and shaking things up a bit can only be a good thing for consumers. Technology – especially in the form of wearable sensors that can transmit data in real time to health care providers  – has the ability to create a new type of highly responsive, one-on-one type of personalized health. Companies like Apple and Google can help to break down the notion that health has to be something offered by a monolithic company with a confusing set of rules and terms. It might just be the case that mobile health care facilitated by wearable tech will turn out to be better than traditional doctors.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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