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Can Google Really Save 100,000 Lives?

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG  ) (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) CEO Larry Page recently claimed that the fear of data mining of health-related data could cost as many as 100,000 lives per year.

That bold statement, which Page made in a New York Times interview during the I/O developers conference, was made in response to concerns that Google was mining too much data from its users. While Page's claim wasn't backed with any real examples, it raises interesting questions about Google's ambitions in health care and the ethical challenges of mining personal health information.

Source: Pixabay.

About that data...
It's stunning how much data Google gathers about its users. Through Google search, it remembers what you are looking for. Through Android and Maps, it knows where you live and the places you go. Newer projects, like Google Glass, driverless cars, smart homes, drones, robots, and artificial intelligence, all offer glimpses into Google's true goal -- total control over the Internet of Things.

Google has a similar vision for the health care industry. Google Health, its attempt to unite the fragmented world of personal health records (PHRs), failed due to a lack of participation from doctors as well as privacy concerns. Google fiercely bounced back by promoting Helpouts as a telehealth platform, launching a biotech subsidiary known as Calico, and signing new partnerships for the use of Google Glass in hospitals.

Android Wear, a slimmed down version of Android for wearables, could unite the fragmented smartwatch market as it did with smartphones and tablets. Google will also tie together all the fitness apps, medical devices, and wearable devices on Android into a single platform known as Google Fit -- its answer to Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) HealthKit.

When we put these pieces together and consider Page's belief that Google needs to mine even more data, is it actually wise to trust Google with our personal health care information?

The difference between Google and Apple
The problem with allowing Google unrestricted access to our health care data is simple -- the majority of its revenue comes from advertisements.

By comparison, Apple doesn't generate significant revenue from ads. Instead, 86% of its revenue comes from sales of iPhones, iPads, and Macs. Therefore, there's no conflict of financial interest in offering the Health app to users -- Apple simply wants to sell more hardware which serves as central hubs to their fitness apps, medical devices, and wearables. Google, on the other hand, mines data to create targeted ads based heavily on user interests, which generate higher ad revenues.

This means that if Google gains full access to personal health records, a diabetic Google user might start seeing online ads for new insulin products, while an obese user could start seeing ads for weight loss drugs. That would raise questions about who benefits more from shared health data on Android -- patients or Google?

Easier said than done
Google's plan to collect more health data is ambitious, but it faces major hurdles. Apple is already partnered with Epic Systems, a major electronic health record (EHR) company which covers half of all patients across America. Google doesn't have any EHR partners for Fit yet, although Glass has generated some interest among EHR companies.

Without backing from a major EHR provider to tie its health ecosystem together, it will be hard for Google to "mine" deeper health data beyond scattered readings from apps, devices, and wearables. All that information must be collected in an EHR for medical professionals to truly matter. In other words, what shows up on the doctor's screen at the clinic must be the same as what the patient sees on the smartphone. That's what Apple is succeeding with Epic while Google is (so far) coming up short.

Services like Apple's HealthKit and Google Fit also need users to voluntarily submit the health data via wearable devices. Although Android controls 62% of the U.S. smartphone market, Android Wear is only compatible with 25% of all Android phones due to its steep Android 4.4 requirementThat doesn't bode well for Google's dream of dominating wrists and phones everywhere with a single operating system.

The Foolish takeaway
If Google fails to secure an established EHR partner for Google Fit, and Android Wear fails to spread across smartwatches as Android did on smartphones, Google's health care ecosystem won't be much more than a neat way to view some accumulated personal fitness data within a single app.

For now, I don't think Google's plan to mine health-related data will save 100,000 lives per year, but it could generate plenty of ad revenue with better targeted ads. And with any luck, there will be some useful health applications in the long term.

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  • Report this Comment On July 06, 2014, at 2:19 PM, PharmTeam wrote:

    Nice article, Leo. I hadn't thought about the ethical implications of Google's revenue coming largely from advertising.

    Athenahealth's CEO just gave a talk at Google. You have to wonder if he sees this as an opportunity to pair it's EHRs, which are already cloud-based, with Google's vision of Big Data. I thought it was a big blow to athena that Epic agreed to the deal with Apple, so any wearable's partnership for athena could be helpful.

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Leo Sun

Leo has covered the crossroads of Wall Street and Silicon Valley since 2012. Follow him on Twitter for more updates!

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