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Big Tech Wants Blind Trust in Interoperability Promises


They won’t get it from me.


This week, some of the biggest players in tech took the stage at the Blue Button 2.0 Developer Conference to announce a strategic partnership aimed at unlocking the potential hidden in myriad heaps of siloed healthcare data. It’s a noble quest that healthcare has embarked upon for decades, with little to show for it. Perhaps our tech heroes can help us along?

Names were big at the conference (Google, IBM, Amazon, Microsoft and more), and the session was unannounced, so it’s no surprise that media outlets clamored to get the word out. Thanks to their work, we know what happened. But are we any closer to knowing what it all means?

A virtually detail-less story — all 205 words of it — has lingered on HealthcareITNews’s home page for an entire day now. The Wall Street Journal published their digital report in print under the murky headline “Tech Giants Focus on Health Data,” which — maybe I’m missing something here? — is not news.

I reached out to the PR departments of every one of these tech players in an attempt to uncover details about a proposed action plan or a fresh healthcare campaign — anything at all that could give us a clue about what’s next — and all I got were tumbleweeds bouncing through my lonely inbox and voicemail.

UPDATE: Three responses arrived after this story went to press. Read more below.

So here’s what we are left with:

  • A surprise session that has all the markers of a textbook publicity stunt, in which tech leaders vowed to “create more efficiencies” and “deliver better outcomes at lower cost” in healthcare
  • A disconcerting lack of scrutiny and due diligence from media outlets, who seem to have gobbled up the tech companies’ bait on the basis of their size and clout
  • A glaring lack of details from the tech companies who participated in the session, and no indication of how they will attempt to deliver on their promises

So what are we to believe while we’re stuck in a detail vacuum? Surely, it’d be unwise in this age of misinformation to take the word of big players like Google or Microsoft at face value. So here we are, left to our own devices to figure out what’s to come.

If we look to the past, then we have reason to get excited about what tech companies can do for healthcare. Google, for example, has made inroads: In a recent JAMA study, the company successfully leveraged artificial intelligence to scan medical images and positively identify cases of diabetic retinopathy. Moreover, Microsoft recently filed a patent application for a pair of smart glasses that can provide constant monitoring of the wearer’s blood pressure.

This is exciting stuff! But it shouldn’t prevent us from demanding accountability from the big tech companies who are the frontrunners in the race toward healthcare disruption. If some traction-less tech startup sauntered into the White House, made an unannounced appearance at a surprise session, and pontificated in lofty terms about how they would facilitate “data fluidity” in healthcare, would we bat an eyelash? Certainly not! The poor, misguided souls would be hauled off the stage by security. We’d diagnose them with shiny object syndrome and then add them to the blacklist of companies who’ve added to cacophonous hype that confuses our progress in health tech.

This isn’t the first time players like Google have preached about healthcare solutions in painfully vague terms. At HIMSS 2018 in Las Vegas, I sat on the edge of my seat waiting for Greg Moore, M.D., Ph.D., vice president of healthcare for Google Cloud, to tell the world how Google’s Cloud API would mark the end of the dark ages for interoperability in healthcare. What I got instead was the sinking feeling that I was a captive market to a massive sales pitch: Cloud API would “provide machine learning for all,” “bring power to you without having a team of software engineers and data scientists” and “facilitate workflows,” Moore said. Thanks, but how?

There’s a lot of work to be done before we can achieve data fluidity and interoperability in healthcare, and I, for one, welcome the big tech overlords who might help us get there. But like all leaders, they’re useless if we’re not willing to hold them accountable.

Statements from industry:

Microsoft Chief Architect Josh Mandel: “We are urging the industry to join the conversation and to join our quest toward greater interoperability.”

Valerie Beaudett, global public relations and communications at Oracle: “Specifically, Oracle has an established healthcare technology platform designed for interoperability, enabling diverse data to be aggregated and leveraged for improved patient care. In fact, we have a large healthcare exchange customer that provides both patients and providers industry standards, securely-featured access to the patient’s medical chart, improving patient care.”

Greg Moore, MD, PhD, VP of healthcare, Google Cloud: “As an industry, we have several important obligations with respect to security, privacy, and regulatory compliance. We believe it is important to work with partners across the ecosystem — patients, providers, insurers, researchers – to unlock important data and deliver it to where it is needed most; and that may be another technology system that speaks a different format, a provider who's trying to build a comprehensive view of a patient, or an individual who is trying to keep track of medical data for themselves and their family. An important step towards this goal is to accelerate the implementation of industry best practices that support an open ecosystem of applications and services. At the moment, initiatives like SMART on FHIR are paving the way for patient access to their data. The Google Cloud Healthcare & Life Sciences team is building tools and infrastructure based on open standards that enable organizations to empower patients with their own data. The more we can accelerate the use of these standards, the sooner all patients will benefit from access to their most important data.”

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