Apple vs. Google: Which Is Doing More for Health?
With both Apple and Google making a series of recent announcements about research efforts and product launches related to health, it’s easy to see that each company is taking a fundamentally different approach to applying technology to advances in the ways that we manage our health and medical conditions. A natural rivalry is the one between the companies’ health and fitness-tracking platforms, Google Fit, which was unveiled this summer, and Apple’s Health app, which will become available with the imminent launch of the iOS 8 mobile operating system.
But a feature-by-feature comparison of the two apps would miss the point of why Apple and Google are entering the healthcare sector in the first place: to drive innovation beyond the simple tracking apps with which we’re familiar to find better, deeper ways that technology can help us treat diseases and improve our health. Let’s look at how each company is approaching its own efforts to break into the healthcare sector, and where some of those projects could lead in the future.
Google announced last week that it has acquired Lift Labs, a startup that has developed a tremor-canceling spoon to make eating easier for patients with Parkinson’s Disease or Essential Tremor. Lift Labs notes on its website that it will continue to make and sell its device, a spoon called Liftware. The device is built with sensors and other stabilizing technology in its handle to detect and respond to tremors, which can be severe enough that they make it difficult for patients to effectively hold a utensil steady enough to eat.
The company says that Liftware achieves 70 percent tremor cancellation, and has multiple attachments are in the works. On its site, Lift Labs also features two apps that the startup developed: Lift Pulse, a tremor measurement and monitoring tool, and Lift Stride, an app to provide auditory cues that help patients to improve their gait.
A Google representative told The New York Times that Lift Labs will be integrated into Google Life Sciences, which is part of Google X, the division Google has established for long-term research projects. Andrew Conrad, head of the Life Sciences division, told The New York Times that he hoped the Liftware spoon would lead to other technologies such as diagnostic tools for the monitoring of tremors. While the acquisition is just one of Google’s many moves into the area of biotechnology, The New York Times points out that the purchase hits close to home for Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Brin’s mother has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and Brin revealed that he has a mutation of a gene called LRRK2 that puts his chances of developing Parkinson’s between 20 percent and 80 percent, as reported by The Economist in 2008.
At the time, Brin noted that the knowledge of his mutation would help him to take preventative measures against the disease. He also noted that he regarded the genetic mutation of LRRK2 as a bug in his personal code, no different from the bugs in computer code that Google fixes routinely. Now, some six years later, Google is making investments and taking on projects to explore genetics and health-related research through the avenue of technology and information analysis — the latter an area where the search engine giant is foremost among its peers.
In the intervening time, Google has backed Calico, a life sciences company that recently announced a partnership with biopharmaceutical firm AbbVie. The two will build a Bay Area research and development facility focused on aging and age-related diseases like neurodegenerative diseases (including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s) and cancer. The collaboration will see Calico and AbbVie partnering through the long process of identifying and developing drugs, unlike Google’s Life Sciences division, which is focused more on new technology and hardware.
The Life Sciences division is developing a contact lens that monitors glucose levels, running a Baseline Study to map the genetics of health, and looking for ways to detect disease earlier. The Baseline Study is collecting genetic and molecular data from an initial 175 volunteers, and will apply Google’s computational power to looking for biomarkers and mutations that are related to health, long life, and disease. Relatively little is known about how DNA, enzymes, and proteins interact with diet and environmental factors, the study will seek to connect genetic information with clinical observations of diet and other habits. While the research may be slow to find any real medical insight, it will likely enable the Life Sciences division to establish a technological system to collect and analyze vast amounts of health-related data.
Google announced in February that it had joined the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health, and simultaneously launched a “preview release” version of a genomics API that enabled researchers to import and search genomic data. The Life Sciences division of Google X is taking advantage of the low cost of sequencing a human genome — a task it now takes only about $1,000 and a day to complete — and can use that capability to search for answers in genetic code as engineers would look for errors in source code.
In contrast to Google’s focus on long-term research, often organized into “moonshot” projects that are a long way off from any commercial application, Apple’s health-related initiatives so far are all focused on consumer-ready products. Unveiling the Apple Watch at a much-anticipated September 9 event, the company revealed the Workout and Activity apps, which will make it easier for users to track how much they move and exercise each day. As Apple chief executive Tim Cook noted during the presentation, the Apple Watch has the ability to motivate people to be more active and more healthy. It’s so far unclear if the device will motivate those who don’t already work out regularly to become more active — changing users’ behavior — or just provide a new way for those who already fitness-minded to track their performance.
With the Apple Watch, Apple also announced WatchKit, a developer program to enable third parties to build apps for the platform. The program seems parallel to HealthKit, the iOS 8 framework that Apple is opening to developers of health and fitness apps. Through HealthKit, the apps will be able to share data with each other — as the consumer consents — and store users’ health information in a centralized, secure location.
As Apple notes on the page of its website introducing the Health app to consumers, the app “just might be the beginning of a health revolution.” Heart rate, nutritional intake, and sleep patterns will all be tracked by the Apple Watch and monitored by the Health app. But HealthKit and the Health app have much wider potential than the tracking of fitness, nutrition, and sleep of which the platform is currently capable. It’s hardly a stretch of the imagination to envision how regularly administered tests on blood and urine could easily be completed at home, with the results linked through an app to the hospital or physician who ordered them. That kind of capability would be very useful for patients managing chronic conditions.
With HealthKit, Apple’s Health app could develop into a platform that could help patients with chronic diseases with everything from diabetes to depression, track their symptoms, manage their medications, stay in contact with physicians, and even keep doctors updated on a daily basis. Each of these potential functions, and many more, would be powered by a wide range of third-party apps and wearable devices, the development of which Apple’s entrance into the area of healthcare is expected to catalyze.
HealthKit will also integrate with traditional electronic medical records systems from Epic Systems and other providers, and it’s there that HealthKit and integrated apps may (or should) come under regulation by HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which calls for the strict protection of sensitive health data. If Apple works out a practical system to help developers build HIPAA-compliant apps — rather than passing off responsibility for compliance to individual developers — the platform could become a hub for innovation in health apps that would be useful in clinical settings for real medical purposes.
A HIPAA-compliant platform could accelerate the development of tools that doctors could recommend to patients, and apps and services that would improve the way that patients manage chronic diseases the way that they communicate with their doctors, and the way that they monitor and improve their own health; in addition, of course, to the way that they track their workouts and optimize their nutrition.
Businessweek reports that HealthKit could also have long-term implications for a field called population health management where hospitals and healthcare plans monitor the health of large groups of people so that they can intervene before illnesses progress into conditions that require costly care and hospital stays.
Medical researchers could also use the platform to gain insight into the activity of patients with specific conditions or even addictions, and just because Apple isn’t taking on long-term research projects itself doesn’t mean that its platform won’t be an important tool for those who are. Whereas Google is focusing its resources on research into ways to detect and treat diseases, Apple’s efforts have huge potential for enabling more preventative measures, and especially, as it seems with HealthKit, remaking routines to help consumers take better control of their health and their interaction with the healthcare industry.
Both Apple and Google are approaching health from two very different directions. Google is leveraging huge computational ability to look for answers without restricting research efforts in its early stages to areas where it could deliver a commercial product or service. While Apple is focused, quite conversely, on providing a platform that will directly enable the creation of apps and services, that platform could very feasibly become a vehicle for researchers, developers, and innovators to place incremental yet significant innovations into the hands of consumers and clinicians, and accelerate the pace at which the healthcare industry is able to adopt new technological ideas and tools.
While it’s possible that Google will be behind the next drug breakthrough for cancer patients, or for those living with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s — an area that is without a doubt far outside Apple’s hardware- and software-centric area of focus — both are building upon its strengths to explore areas that could have a huge impact on the lives of millions of people.