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    Are Apple and Amazon tech ‘saviors’ or same old story?

    Patients at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston soon will use high-tech assistants to help them navigate their hospital stays. 

    They could, for example, query Amazon’s Alexa about their diet options for the day or about the members of their care team. They could use Google Home to page a nurse, request spiritual care, or find out when their doctor is scheduled to arrive.

    Already, Beth Israel Deaconess has tested how both the Alexa and Google Home ambient listening devices might work with inpatients. The medical center is also considering how these technologies could be used to help physicians with tasks such as accessing patient data without having to click through electronic files.


    FURTHER READING: Building technology to let physicians take control of their careers


    Such applications could be just the start of advances ushered in by consumer tech giants, says John D. Halamka, MD, MS,  chief information officer for Beth Israel Deaconess and dean for technology at Harvard Medical School.

    The healthcare industry is ripe for digital transformation, according to healthcare and health IT executives like Halamka. Given that, it’s not surprising speculation is rampant about what the giant consumer tech companies—specifically Amazon, Apple, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc.—might bring to healthcare. 

    Although all these companies aren’t disclosing ideas for future healthcare products, leading health IT officials say their innovative histories and experience with disruption could bring significant tech-driven improvements to how physicians work and deliver care.

    “I don’t think Google, Apple, or Amazon are going to be competitors to existing EHR vendors, but they’ll be highly complementary and bring [beneficial] functions to patients and providers and enhance the usability and the experience of what we do,” says Halamka, a practicing emergency physician.

    Yet experts also say physicians shouldn’t look to these companies to deliver revolutionary improvements or any panaceas. Like any other companies in this field, they have high barriers to overcome—from creating technologies that meet any regulatory requirements to understanding the unique workflows and processes that exist in healthcare.

    “I see incremental innovation, but it’s not going to fundamentally change the way we deliver care,” says Joseph C. Kvedar, MD, vice president of Partners HealthCare Connected Health, a Boston-based organization studying technology-enabled care delivery and connected health programs. “No tech company can change care delivery. Care delivery has to be changed by people who deliver care. So if you’re looking for any of these to be a savior, I very much doubt that will be the case.” 

    Persistent speculation

    U.S. spending for healthcare grew 4.3 percent in 2016, reaching $3.3 trillion, or $10,348 per person, according to the National Health Expenditure Accounts. Healthcare spending that year accounted for 17.9 percent of gross domestic product.

    Given the size of the market, health IT practitioners, analysts, and researchers say it’s not surprising that a growing number of companies are looking at breaking into the space or trying to grow their share of the business. “It’s a very attractive business opportunity,” says Michael Hodgkins, MD, MPH, chief medical information officer with the AMA.

    Apple already has a presence in healthcare. For instance, it has its own CareKit and ResearchKit frameworks that software developers can use to develop applications on Apple’s platform. 

    Next: Expected improvements

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