What Google's Calico Means For Healthcare

Here are three reasons Google's health venture matters, both to the industry and to our quality of life.

Alex Kane Rudansky, Associate editor for InformationWeek Healthcare

September 26, 2013

4 Min Read

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With CEO Larry Page's announcement last week that Google will be investing in Calico, a healthcare company, came a flurry of speculation from every corner of the tech and healthcare industries about what this venture will actually look like. Headlines such as, "Can Google Solve Death?" and "Google Seeks to Cure Aging," fed the widespread hype, with few details about how Calico might live up to these "death solving" expectations.

InformationWeek Healthcare spoke with several industry experts to find out why Calico matters in healthcare and how Google's latest venture might shape up. Here are three reasons:

1. Google brings unprecedented access to data.

"Google has greater consumer reach than any other company on Earth," said Josh Stevens, CEO at Keas, an employee wellness technology firm. "No company has both greater consumer access and greater resources to throw at challenging opportunities like healthcare than Google."

[ If not a cure for death, would you settle for a better shopping experience? Read Google Offers Shoppers Same-Day Delivery. ]

This means the potential can live up to the hype. Although big data in healthcare is exploding, it's still largely limited by both HIPAA and a tradition of paper records. If Calico can use Google's reach to make health data available, organize it and create a community around it, it could open unprecedented opportunities for engagement with health data, Stevens said.

Most medical understanding about health is limited to clinical trials and paper files, with electronic health records still at the beginning stages of their potential reach.

"A global clinical trial around health is an opportunity Google can bring to the table," Stevens said. This can be achieved through sorting data, pattern matching and finding correlational and causal relationships within the data, all of which Google has the capabilities to do.

Google's commitment to access, transparency and awareness could change the way healthcare is approached.

"It's time for HIPAA to go," Stevens said. "HIPAA will be reformed because of products like Calico."

2. Google might not solve death, but its products can help us as we approach it.

Google's informal corporate motto, "Don't be evil," doesn't mean the search giant can't capitalize on how our bodies deteriorate as we approach the end of our lives. There is practical potential for Calico, said Charles Webster, an industry expert with degrees in medicine, accountancy, industrial engineering and artificial intelligence. If not necessarily the quantity, Calico has the potential to affect the quality of our end-of-life care.

Webster keyed in on the part of CEO Larry Page's Google Plus announcement that focused on "decreased mobility and mental agility," two effects of aging that Google is already developing products to assist with: Google's self-driving cars and Google Glass.

"These are at least two technologies that map rather directly onto the less sexy side of Calico -- the management of decreased mobility and mental agility," he said. "They're practical, innovative and potentially very profitable."

For decreased mobility, Google has self-driving cars; for decreased mental agility, Google Glass. With Glass, there's the potential for a facial-recognition system that could tell someone with dementia who their family members are. ("This is your nephew; tell him you love him.")

"It's a combination of creepy and cool," Webster said. "Keeping people mobile physically and mentally is a more practical and profitable venture, considering the aging population."

3. At the very least, it brings attention to the industry

"Google, by virtue of who they are and what they've achieved, has a massive ability any time they make an announcement to create interest in a space that had not existed," said Owen Tripp, co-founder and CEO of Grand Rounds, a global network of medical experts.

In other words, when Google does it, you know it's big.

"When Google as a software beacon said, 'This is a problem we want to take on next,' even if they massively face plant, they will have raised awareness and attracted people who are currently spending time and talent on other projects," Tripp said. "This is possibly the biggest thing in health IT in the last five years."

About the Author(s)

Alex Kane Rudansky

Associate editor for InformationWeek Healthcare

Alex Kane Rudansky is an associate editor for InformationWeek Healthcare. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald, among others. She is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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