It’s not every day that health-related news from Google gets buried, but recent headlines about the Supreme Court upholding a key provision of the Affordable Care Act and the nation’s largest insurers playing matchmaker seem to have relegated Google’s planned health-tracking wristband to the proverbial back page of the Internet.
Google’s device, which it hopes to test later this summer, will track pulse, heart rate, skin temperature, and even environmental factors such as exterior noise levels. Google initially sees its as-yet-unnamed wristband as a medical device, not a consumer device, to be “prescribed” for use in clinical trials and drug tests and not sold by brick-and-mortar or online retailers. In other words, don’t make plans any time soon to camp out in line and be the first kid in the neighborhood to be seen wearing one.
That’s OK. The health-tracking wristband is a long-term play. Very long-term. Andrew Conrad, a molecular biologist and head of the life sciences team at Google, told Bloomberg he could see doctors giving the device to all patients – in 20 or 30 years. In the meantime, the company will work with drug makers and academic researchers to test the accuracy of the device and also work on obtaining regulatory clearance.
It will be very interesting to see what happens with Google’s wristband. Its use in clinical and drug trials dovetails nicely with its Baseline Study initiative to collect genomic data in the name of helping physicians predict the onset of chronic conditions far sooner than is currently possible. There’s also Calico Labs and its mission to study age-related diseases. These efforts need a lot of people willing to contribute a lot of data. Trials using the wristband will provide both – and they’ll let stakeholders see if and when the dream of preventing debilitating and deadly diseases years before they would otherwise strike can become a reality.
Google has spent several years as a healthcare wallflower. The company abruptly shuttered Google Health in 2011 (though time has revealed that Google is hardly alone in failing to make personal health records work), and its cofounders admitted last year that Google will never be a true healthcare company because they say the federal government’s heavy regulatory hand stifles innovation (which is admittedly understandable).
The wristband announcement, then, is Google’s way of saying it’s ready to join the dance, albeit at its own pace and on its own terms. FitBit dominates the wearable device market with a stunning 68 percent market share, according to recent research from Slice Intelligence, and the recent FitBit IPO couldn’t have gone much better. (It helps that the Apple Watch, notably stripped of health monitoring features prior to its April launch, barely made a dent in FitBit’s market share.) Entering the consumer market now, even for a company with the resources and expertise of Google, and even when IDC says more than 72 million wearable devices will ship worldwide in 2015, would be a bad move.
Expect FitBits, Jawbones, and smart watches to rule the wearable tech market for the next few years. After all, a device along the lines of what Google is designing would come with a hefty price tag – especially for the typical patient with multiple comorbidities who needs rigorous monitoring the most.
Over time, though, the limitations of watches and wristbands will continue to manifest. The future of wearable health technology isn’t devices that dump data into proprietary consumer applications that don’t connect to clinical systems used for decision support, care coordination, and a host of other population health management needs. Nor is it devices that are tethered to smartphones, or collecting a single data point, or catering to consumers who don’t need external motivation to take 10,000 steps a day or save dessert for special occasions. Given these limitations, it’s no wonder that one-third of Americans with wearables abandon them within six months.
Rather, tomorrow’s wearables will provide a more complete view of a person’s health. They will build on the advances of vendors addressing key needs such as diabetes management (Glooko and Livongo) and cardiac monitoring (AliveCor and Preventice) and put several sensors on a single wristband – much like today’s smartphone has replaced yesterday’s graphing calculator, music player, atlas, address book, to-do list and, yes, phone. They will present information in a format that makes sense and transmit information in a machine-readable format that all clinical systems can read.
Rather than add to the confusion of care coordination, these devices and their steady stream of data will complement it. They will take time to develop – but so, too, will the larger value-based, patient-centric ecosystem that can effectively use that data to improve care quality and efficiency. In that sense, Google is wise to wait to join the wearable fray.