Modern Healthcare Hospital Operations Reporter Alex Kacik and Technology Reporter Jessica Kim Cohen talk about all things Google Health.
Beyond the Byline: Google Health restructures after Cerner poaches top exec
Alex Kacik: Hello, and welcome to Modern Healthcare's Beyond the Byline, where we offer a behind the scenes look into our reporting. I'm Alex Kacik. I write about hospital operations. And today, I'm talking with our technology reporter, Jessica Kim Cohen, to talk about all things Google Health. Thanks for joining me, Jess.
Jessica Kim Cohen: Thanks for having me.
Alex Kacik: Jess, you reported that Google Health, in its second iteration, is disbanding as it restructures and the employees will be integrated into other departments.
What is Google Health? If you could start with an overview. And what does this mean for their related healthcare ventures?
Jessica Kim Cohen: Google Health was something that Google started around 2018 after recruiting Dr. David Feinberg, who was then CEO of Geisinger Health System. He was going to head up their health efforts. And as part of that, he was consolidating healthcare projects from across the company.
So there was a venture called Deep Mind, which was focused on AI and healthcare. That became part of Google Health. Some other projects related to search became part of Google Health, some projects with major health systems related to cloud in particular. So it was basically a division that housed any projects related to healthcare and life sciences.
And now that Dr. David Feinberg, it was recently announced he'll be leaving Google to instead head up Cerner as its new CEO. And once he leaves, it sounds like that Google kind of health division won't exist anymore. And it'll kind of unwind. And those various projects will go to different areas of the company.
So projects related to AI might go to the research division of Google. Projects related to search will go to the search division. A lot of work related to kind of wearables might go to the device division. And they'll kind of be spread out throughout the company now.
Alex Kacik: So yeah, just in terms of historical context, was it 2012, I think Google Health version one came into the fray, but then they shuttered after four years, you reported, and that was a personal health record service. We saw Health Vault from Microsoft that didn't really go anywhere. More recently, you saw joint venture between Berkshire Hathaway, JP Morgan Chase and Amazon. And that was received with some high hopes in that they would able to change the health benefit dynamics by pooling their resources and their collective employee to figure out a more cost-effective and efficient way to offer health benefits.
So yeah, I'm just curious what you make of these different tech spearheaded adventures and what's become of them?
Jessica Kim Cohen: Definitely. So over the years, we have for sure seen that tech companies have made big investments and commitments to healthcare. And then a few years later, stepped back a bit and then reentered a few years later and that's something many healthcare executives and analysts have been pointing out in the wake of this news about Google. Is this a repeat of when that Google Health product that was shuttered about 10 years ago now, is this a repeat of that? And what Google has pointed out is that it's not ending these health projects. It's just kind of ending that Google health division. So it's still in healthcare.
So I guess right now we're kind of seeing how much, what continues to happen here. Is there still as much of a focus on health in Google as we're moving forward? I'm kind of seeing folks on both sides right now. On one hand, without having kind of a central healthcare leader within the company, it might be harder to continue to prioritize this work.
On the other hand, some folks have said that a more distributed organization for healthcare projects might make more sense. It might make more sense for healthcare projects related to the cloud, for example, to be completely in that cloud division and just working on tailoring products for healthcare. Rather than being siloed in a potentially different part of the company. But given the historical context, there are some folks who do seem worried about this meeting that Google is leaving the healthcare space.
Alex Kacik: Yeah. And it sounds like it's hard to pin as a leadership change that spurred this transition or this was like part of broader attraction in there, in the healthcare space, for Google. But you know you saw a somewhat similar timeline when it came to Haven. Dr. Atul Gawande stepped down. He took a lower role in the company. And then they announced, I think it was months later, that they were disbanding Haven, but it sounds like you didn't get a definitive answer on whether this was spurred by a leadership change or this was a part of something bigger.
Jessica Kim Cohen: The way that Google is restructuring its healthcare work has been hinted at in the past, starting as early as June, I believe. Google had been kind of putting some teams that had been under the Google Health umbrella towards the Fitbit division. Google had recently acquired Fitbit toward kind of research or search, but it's also impossible to ignore that this news did about the kind of formal retiring of the Google Health division did come out right on the heels of Cerner's announcement about Dr. David Feinberg leaving the company. So not sure if his leaving kind of sped up a process that was already in place or whether this was indicative of something else.
Alex Kacik: And you looked at federal SEC documents filings and found that Dr. Feinberg had seemingly millions of reasons to take on a new role at Cerner. It sounds like he's getting an attractive compensation package.
Jessica Kim Cohen: Yeah. It'll be interesting to see what happens at Cerner. Dr. Feinberg's background is in as a CEO of health systems, not of electronic health record corporations like Cerner is, so this will definitely be a change in the type of work he's doing. But Cerner for awhile has been saying that they want to move away from being perceived as a company focused on just electronic health records and move towards being more of a data company and a company that makes the systems that lets data move around and such. They also have a very large agreement with Amazon web services who's their cloud provider that also fits into some of this work they're doing that has more to do with innovation and data. So it'll be interesting to see how Dr. Feinberg continues to kind of build on that direction they've laid out.
Alex Kacik: It seems like all these companies are trying to broaden their tool belts and their repertoire. You have a bunch of GPOs that are adding consultancy services. You know you have the insurers who are hiring physicians and adding primary care services. Cerner now, as you're describing it, wants to be part of this broader data effort. So I think it's just interesting to see all these different sectors kind of change. Aetna and CVS merging and all these lines being blurred now.
Jessica Kim Cohen: Definitely, definitely. I know in the EHR space, in particular. We're at a point where most healthcare organizations have implemented electronic health records. So to continue to grow, there's not really a lot of market share up for grabs left in the EHR space anymore. So seeing a lot of these companies, including Cerner, but also Epic and AllScripts and other competitors in that market, trying to kind of diversify the things that they can sell to their customers.
Alex Kacik: You know I wanted to just recap on kind of what technology companies are tasked with in healthcare. You know like for instance, you've reported on Ascension teaming up with Google to try to make sense of lab results, medications and diagnoses and then figure out, like hone treatment, specifically for certain demographics. And I know that's brought some concerns about data privacy and HIPAA. But you know, you have, like you said, Fitbit is part of Google now. You have Amazon that are building out some wellness clinics and you know so much is housed under their Amazon web services and you'd think they would have access to some data analytics there. So, yeah. And just in terms of the scope of what the potential for some of these tech companies is in healthcare, if you could help us there.
Jessica Kim Cohen: I'd say one area, it definitely comes to cloud. Most of the big tech giants, we're talking about Amazon, Microsoft, Google, it's kind of their cloud arms that are leading to a lot of the deals that are happening between healthcare organizations and the tech giants. And also some of the concern, because in a lot of these contracts, like with Ascension, like you mentioned. Ascension is housing it's data in Google's cloud, which has led to some degree of concern over what type of access Google as a technology giant has to patient data.
And I've noticed since then, since that news about Ascension came out, every time we're seeing an announcement about one of these deals between healthcare organization and a technology giant, there is at least a paragraph, if not more, laying out who has access to what, kind of trying to highlight that there's good security in place. Of course, there's a lot of details happening in the background, but it's interesting how that has become a major thing that organizations definitely realize the public is curious about.
But in terms of the reasons to strike these contracts, a lot of it does come down to the fact that tech giants have a lot of technology expertise, data expertise, that hospitals might not have on staff. Or if they are lucky enough to have on staff, don't have it at the scale that a Google or an Amazon does. So they can strike a cloud contract with one of these companies. And then also use that company's AI tools or machine learning tools or analytics tools to help with making sense of all the data.
And I'd also call out that it's not just hospitals doing this. There's also health insurers partnering with cloud companies. Also, EHR is, like I mentioned. Cerner has a cloud agreement with Amazon. Meditech has one with Google. AllScripts has one with Microsoft. So an area that folks are definitely paying attention to kind of across healthcare.
Alex Kacik: Yeah. Let's stay on cyber security for a second. Co-worker Mike and I are working on a look back at 20 years since September 11th and seeing where disaster preparedness has come since then. Part of that will be looking at the cybersecurity and I know you were just at the HIMSS conference in Vegas and it sounds like that was a popular topic. So yeah, I know it seems like the hospitals and other healthcare companies are always trying to play catch up with the latest malware and having to respond to these cyber attacks that are holding their data hostage. So, what did what'd you guys talk about over there at HIMSS?
Jessica Kim Cohen: Yeah. A big point of conversation, of course, when it comes to cyber attacks against healthcare organizations, is that hackers definitely have healthcare organizations in a hard place. If a hospital is hit by ransomware and it shuts down their systems, that not only means that they can't operate as all businesses would be in that situation, but it can pose patient care issues if they're not able to care for patients that day, if they have to start diverting patients to different facilities. So that often means that hospitals in those kinds of situations are under time pressure to figure out kind of how to address this situation as quickly as possible.
So with that in mind, one big topic of conversation at HIMSS this year was when it comes to ransomware and hackers, demanding payment in exchange for decrypting data. First of all, whether or not hospitals should consider paying. Most cyber security experts, including the FBI, discourage hospitals from paying first of all, because there is not a guarantee if you pay a hacker that they will decrypt their data. They are cyber criminals who might not keep their promises. And second of all, a concern that paying cyber criminals kind of encourages more of this type of crime and funds future crime, essentially.
So a big question was should those types of ransom payments be outlawed or be banned by the federal government? There are arguments for and against. The main argument against is that a concern that it re-victimized as hospitals who if they're hit by a hacker and a cyber attack and are already in a hard place and decide that unfortunately, they do need to pay because that's the only way for them to get their data back. And that's made illegal, but that kind of re-victimizes the organization. So we'll see what ends up happening there on kind of a policy level.
Alex Kacik: Hey, Jess. Thanks so much for sharing your time and expertise with us.
Jessica Kim Cohen: Definitely. Thanks so much, Alex.
Alex Kacik: All right. And thank you all for listening. If you'd like to subscribe and support our work, there's a link in the show notes. You can subscribe to Beyond the Byline on Spotify or wherever you listen to your podcasts. And you can stay connected with our work by following Jessica and I at Modern Healthcare on Twitter and LinkedIn. We appreciate your support.
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