Google, Healthcare and the Problem of Fun

For a company with a mission to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," there is one industry in which Google co-founders are less enthusiastic about doing so: healthcare.

This indifference isn't overwhelmingly apparent. The tech giant has made some footprints in health ventures: It made recent headlines for its glucose-reading contact lenses, and its Google Fit platform lets users organize their fitness and health data (steps, sleep, calories, etc.) in one place. Google is a major investor in Calico — a company focused on combating aging and disease — which sparked excitement among biotech pros and geneticists last year, and Google Ventures also backs Flatiron Health, a data analytics platform for oncologists. 

You might think such ventures indicate some long-term interest in health and healthcare, but these may remain isolated projects to the Google co-founders, who are seemingly tepid about the industry. Co-founder Larry Page said investments in health IT startups are "very small by comparison to our core business," and their mobile platform doesn't, and likely won't, have the health ambitions of Apple's HealthKit.

Part of the reason is healthcare's regulatory demands. In a discussion at the annual Khosla Ventures CEO Summit, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla asked Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Mr. Page if they can imagine Google becoming a health company. ("Maybe a larger business than the search business or the media business?") Mr. Brin and Mr. Page showed hesitation at the idea.

"Generally, health is just so heavily regulated. It's just a painful business to be in. It's just not necessarily how I want to spend my time," said Mr. Brin. "Even though we do have some health projects, and we'll be doing that to a certain extent. But I think the regulatory burden in the U.S. is so high that I think it would dissuade a lot of entrepreneurs."

Mr. Page agreed with his co-founder, using an example to illustrate his concern that regulations kill possibilities for innovation in healthcare.

"Imagine you had the ability to search people's medical records in the U.S.," said Mr. Page. "Any medical researcher can do it. Maybe they have the names removed. Maybe when the medical researcher searches your data, you get to see which researcher searched it and why. I imagine that would save 10,000 lives in the first year. Just that. That's almost impossible to do because of HIPAA [sic]. I do worry that we regulate ourselves out of some really great possibilities that are certainly on the data-mining end."

As Forbes contributor David Shaywitz noted, it's interesting to see a company tackle such outlandish projects as driverless cars but get foiled by healthcare. If Google built itself on anticipating the needs not yet articulated by its audience and meeting them with products and services that set new standards, it is astounding to see the company intentionally avoid doing so in healthcare, where hundreds of billions of dollars are wastefully spent.

The regulatory burdens in healthcare are nothing to sneeze at (although I'd imagine driverless cars take quite a bit of regulatory work, as well). But there is something else going on with Google's iciness toward healthcare. This could be the downside of Google's philosophy that "work should be challenging and the challenge should be fun."

Mr. Brin dismissed the possibility of much-needed innovation in healthcare because "it's just not necessarily how [he wants] want to spend [his] time." It's an honest answer, but a perturbing one. It's the type of language one might use to describe jury duty, not innovative work (backed by some of the company's nearly 50,000 employees) that could improve people's health. It's also interesting since Google competitor Apple has really delved in with HealthKit, something Apple describes as "the beginning of a health revolution." It's consumer friendly, but can also help clinicians collect data from third-party wearables and apps, such as that from Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic.

As much as tech innovators are hailed as healthcare's potential saving grace, with their data mining, analytics and abilities to deliver innovations that soon become indispensible (imagine a day without Google), it is important to remember this behemoth of a company started as a search engine. Google has grown by leaps and bounds, sure, but the interview at the KV CEO Summit suggests a fundamental gap in how people in healthcare and how people in technology pursue work. Not all people, of course. But healthcare has little room for people who pursue work that is only cool, fun or they feel is worth their time.

This interview also raises some larger questions: Is one industry at fault more than the other for the slow pace of innovation in the healthcare industry? How can healthcare be more accommodating to entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley? Will it ever be an industry perceived as creative, fun or cool? (And if it can, should it be?) Or should tech whizzes like those quoted above start approaching work with less concern about fun?  

Healthcare is riddled with problems. Depending on where you sit, its perceived shortage of fun and coolness is either a big one, or childish complaint from people who can make big investments but chose to focus their attentions elsewhere.


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