mHealth Aggregators: Google Joins the Fray with Fit
Google has announced its Google Fit platform, a collection of APIs it hopes will become the go-to fitness ecosystem. Similar to the recently announced Apple HealthKit, Fit will let health wearables and apps converse, making it possible for data to be pooled and analyzed and for conclusions to be drawn from various tools simultaneously. This aggregation will make mobile health information vastly more meaningful and actionable to both consumers and healthcare professionals. Google’s reasons and approach are slightly different than Apple’s.
For pharma, it’s overall good news: another venue through which mHealth tools and services can reach more patients.
The Google Fit Platform was announced and previewed at the June 30th Google I/O Developers Conference. Demonstrated in combination with weight-loss app Noom and the Withings scale, it showcased two of the partners already onboard with Fit. It is a collection of APIs (application programming interfaces) that make it possible for developers to create apps and wearables whose data can sync and combine across devices. In so doing, it’s very similar to the recently announced Apple HealthKit. Unlike it, though, Fit hasn’t been announced with a proprietary app that will serve up that compiled data.
On June 20, the FDA released draft guidance on mobile device data related to the mobile medical app guidance they published last fall. They indicated that the agency does not wish to develop new types of regulations. Platforms like Fit — which simply move and integrate data, but do not actively measure or interpret it — do not seem to be viewed as high-risk.
The timing of the Google Fit and Apple HealthKit announcements, so close to the above and also to the FDA’s release of new draft social media guidances, is worth noting. It’s likely Apple and Google may have been working with the FDA to collaborate on the platforms and the guidance in tandem, sharing expertise and protecting each other’s’ interests.
Google versus Apple
HealthKit’s announcement, coming prior to Google Fit’s, has caused some to ask whether Google is an also-ran. This, however, is unlikely. Both announcements were made at their respective developers’ conferences, and the timing is probably only related to that. Both companies understand the opportunities of mobile health (mHealth), and both Google and Apple are using their leadership positions to foster innovation in software developers, as well as manufacturers of phones, devices and wearables. And while Google’s announcement came second to Apple’s, some believe that it’s Google that has a head start in the mHealth race because Fit will actually be available sooner than HealthKit.
How Fit is different from HealthKit
Google and Apple, being very different companies, have released similar tools which nonetheless have some very different features “baked in.” For instance:
- Fit data will match a user’s Google ID and therefore apply to all devices and platforms which use that ID. It’s not clear whether HealthKit data will be tied to a user’s Apple ID.
- Android devices lack the M7 motion-detecting chip of many iOS devices — meaning that while many Apple phones can track activity even without a wearable, Google-based phones often lack that capability.
- As mentioned above, while Apple included the Health app as a dashboard into the data aggregated by its platform, Google did not. It is providing the framework and looking to the developer community for the tools to use with it.
- Google announced an array of familiar partners already in place for Fit, including Nike, Adidas, Withings, Motorola, Intel and HTC. Apple’s angle was to partner with fewer organizations that are closer to the healthcare community, including the Mayo Clinic and — importantly — Epic Systems, a major provider of electronic health records.
- Again, timing may be key. Fit looks to be online sooner than HealthKit, with the Software Developer Kit for Fit available in a few weeks, as opposed to the fall for HealthKit.
As several pundits have noted, this is a bit of a rerun for Google, who created Google Health in 2008 but shut it down in 2011. The difference now is the growing ubiquity of portable and wearable digital technology. And Google just teamed up with Novartis to produce its smart contact lenses for blood glucose monitoring.
Is Google trying to be a health company? Probably not. Unlike Apple, whose profits come mainly from phone sales, Google’s profits come from online ad revenue. The logical conclusion, as many have deduced, is that Google’s plan for making money from their health-wearable platform is for Google Fit to make Google more useful to advertisers.
And — like pharma — Google is well aware of how heavily regulated the landscape of healthcare can be. One of Google’s cofounders, Sergey Brin, stated recently, “Generally, health is just so heavily regulated. It’s just a painful business to be in. It’s just not necessarily how I want to spend my time … the regulatory burden in the U.S. is so high.”
“Generally, health is just so heavily regulated. It’s just a painful business to be in. It’s just not necessarily how I want to spend my time … the regulatory burden in the U.S. is so high.”
Google sees the potential benefit for public health through data mining. As noted in a frequently quoted Larry Page comment to The New York Times, “Right now we don’t data-mine healthcare data. If we did we’d probably save 100,000 lives next year.” In a follow-up article, however, Page laments that “ … through regulation largely, [healthcare] data is so locked up that it can’t be used to benefit people very well.” As evidenced in the Novartis deal, an opportunity exists for pharma companies to combine their expertise in regulation with Google’s penchant for innovation.
What does Google’s new foray into health mean for pharma?
Don't worry about playing favorites
Will pharma have to choose whether to work with Google or Apple exclusively? Don’t worry — this is highly unlikely. It’s simply financially unwise to be exclusionary. Google benefits if Fit is used by the most possible people and creating a walled garden runs counter to that aim.
Integrating apps into both platforms will create an added step for pharma marketing teams, but depending on the eventual reach of each platform, this step will be crucial for any truly patient-centric program.
Bake Fit (and HealthKit) into all of your digital plans
Your marcomm plans should all automatically have a mobile component by now. (They do already, right?) Similarly, that mobile component should now begin to automatically include provisions for both Fit and HealthKit. You wouldn’t build a website without testing it on the popular browsers. Now, you can’t build an app or tool without considering how it will play with these platforms.
Bet on mHealth
Tech titans Google, Apple and Amazon all have recently taken steps that further legitimize the mHealth market and bring it into the mainstream. Clearly, pharma should be looking in the same direction. Soon, consumers and HCPs will come to expect pharma to integrate into these personal health ecosystems.
For more information on mHealth, the quantified self movement and pharma’s inherent opportunity, see also: