Google’s medical chief says company shifting health focus

Bloomberg | Updated on September 11, 2021

The strategy is to embed health care research and approaches in core products, such as search and YouTube, says Karen DeSalvo

In August, the leader of Google Health departed and the division dissolved. While some interpreted the moves as evidence that Google was retreating from health care, the company’s chief health officer said the changes reflected a shifting focus, not an abandonment of a sector the search giant has trumpeted as a promising future business.

“We are not retrenching on health,” Karen DeSalvo said in an interview. “I’m busier than ever. So is my team.”

She framed Google’s strategy as an effort to embed health care research and approaches in its core products, like search and YouTube, rather than simply starting new commercial services. “That work doesn’t happen in one unit,” she said. “It doesn’t really leverage or take advantage of the opportunities to meet people in the moment, where they are.”

DeSalvo, a physician and an official in the Obama administration, joined Alphabet Inc.’s Google in 2019. The company had just recruited David Feinberg, a health care executive, to marshal a new product unit, Google Health. The company had myriad efforts in the field, ranging from electronic medical records to research on disease detection. Feinberg’s job was to consolidate and commercialise them, pushing Google deeper into a market rivals like Apple Inc. and Inc. were entering.

It didn’t last long. Last month, Feinberg left for Cerner Corp., the medical information technology provider. Google disbanded his team, moving members to research and wearables divisions. DeSalvo was slotted under Google’s policy and legal arm.

The organisation shuffle, she said, was a response to lessons from the pandemic, when Google released features for contact tracing, population mobility tracking and other tools for clinicians and hospitals. Google bought FitBit, the fitness-band maker. And the company’s cloud division moved aggressively to capitalise on the surge in digital health.

DeSalvo leads a clinical unit that counsels several Google divisions, including Maps, hardware and cloud. She declined to share the size of her team.

Verily and Calico, two other Alphabet companies, also work on biotechnology and medicine, which has caused some confusion with partners.

Other splashy health efforts from internet giants have recently flopped. Earlier this year, Amazon folded a health benefits joint venture developed with Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. Microsoft Corp. shut down a patient records project.

Many in health view Google and its peers as unprepared for the field’s compliance, regulatory and operational difficulties. “There’s a certain hubris technology has: ‘We can solve anything,’” said Rod Hochman, chief executive officer of Providence St. Joseph Health. “Health care gets complicated in a hurry.”

It can get particularly messy for Google, an advertising business under serious regulatory scrutiny.

One of Google Health’s first projects under Feinberg was a political disaster. Google had created a search tool for the Ascension hospital network. An article critical of the partnership’s privacy terms prompted a federal inquiry. Feinberg had to give assurances that patient data was kept private.

DeSalvo, a public health expert, agreed that the sector is complicated. But she considered Google’s work also focused on social factors like education and access. “It’s not just about great medical care,” she said. “It’s also about context and other drivers of health.”

DeSalvo cited Google’s work giving free advertising space to the World Health Organisation, which the company said has served 1.7 billion Covid-19 related messages this year.

Care Studio, the search software Google provided to Ascension, hasn’t shut down, she said, although the engineers building it moved to the company’s research unit. “It’s still a pretty early development project,” DeSalvo said.

Published on September 10, 2021

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