In December 2020, the European Commission approved Google’s acquisition of Fitbit, the wearables market leader. The $2.1 billion worth transaction was Google’s first investment in the health and wellness industry, sparking protests around the world, including those of Amnesty International. According to IDC predictions, the smart wearables market will continue to grow dynamically by about 12.4% year-over-year in the next four years. This year alone, approximately 400 million such devices will reach consumers. The European Commission approved Google’s purchase of Fitbit under several conditions to ensure transparent data use for advertising purposes or its interoperability.
Data collected by the wearable devices will go to the Google Fit application available on any Android smartphone. The company already cooperates with the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association, among others, so that users can take better care of their health.
In 2020, Google repeatedly courted the health care system. In November, Google Cloud announced the launch of two new artificial intelligence tools designed to help healthcare organizations analyse large volumes of unstructured text. These systems are to help healthcare professionals analyse data and thus facilitate the work of doctors and nurses. Google Health has also formed several strategic partnerships, among others with Mayo Clinic, to work on artificial intelligence and machine learning applications in medicine. Another event worth mentioning was the creation of a new research platform for academic medical centres and universities.
In April 2020, Google launched COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, a web-based tool to collect aggregated and anonymized location data from mobile devices in order to develop large scale behavioural trends. That same month Google Cloud Healthcare API was launched, a platform standardizing data exchange between solutions built on Google Cloud. In May, in cooperation with Apple, the company launched an application programming interface (API) for tracing COVID-19 contacts using smartphones. Google Cloud also continues to invest $100 million into Amwell, a leading telehealth platform. The goal is to become leading providers of cloud-based virtual care. In September, Google announced an update of its maps to show the frequency of COVID-19 cases in some regions. In December, Google Health launched the Google Health Studies application for Android, which would allow anyone with a device to participate in clinical research. To get the complete picture, a number of smaller projects should also be added.
Amazon, an e-commerce market leader, made its debut into the health world in December 2020, introducing the Halo fitness tracker. Much like Google, wearable devices are not so much a new end product but a stepping stone to developing new services based on collected data such as lifestyle, habits, physical activity, objectives, and health metrics. The Halo mobile app scans the body to calculate the body fat percentage. It is intended to boost the user’s motivation to exercise, for example. Additionally, it analyses the wearer’s voice to determine their emotional well-being on a given day.
But that’s not all. In February, Amazon Care, a virtual healthcare service, was launched for employees in Seattle’s headquarter. Is this a testing ground for large-scale application implementation? Amazon and Oral-B introduced the first voice-integrated toothbrush. Amazon Alexa voice assistant’s users can receive real-time tips on their habits and practical advice when brushing their teeth. Since November, Alexa has been offering American clients the so-called Care Hub, a free feature to remotely check in on older relatives. It can be used, for instance, to set up activity alerts, which are then sent to the caregiver. Amazon has been working on entering the pharmaceutical market for some time now. It partly managed to do so in 2020 with the launch of its own online Amazon Pharmacy service. Customers can order prescription medications online with fast home delivery. It is worth mentioning that on Amazon, customers can buy almost everything – from books to household appliances, cosmetics, furniture, clothes, etc. The company now has over 150 million Amazon Prime program subscribers, which gives access to a wide selection of films and faster, free delivery.
Although COVID-19 has thwarted some of the production and distribution plans of the big tech giants, it has also opened many closed doors. This has been the case with Apple. The company has introduced many updates and features that meet current needs related to the pandemic. One of them is the API for smartphone operating systems developed in collaboration with Google, allowing designing applications for contact tracing. The company has a strong focus on involvement in clinical research, collaboration with public health organizations such as the American CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) and academic centres. These include the Heartline Study conducted with Johnson & Johnson and Evidation Health, Digital Asthma Study, and a project with the Scripps Research Translational Institute using Apple Watches to determine whether they can detect early COVID-19 cases.
The company’s success has not been hindered by research conducted at the Mayo Clinic, suggesting that the Apple watch irregular heartbeat detecting feature may lead to unnecessary doctor visits. In June, Apple unveiled the next generation of Apple Watches with many health and fitness-oriented features, including sleep tracking and personalized sleep schedules, time control for hand washing, and exposure to dangerous noise. Thanks to blood oxygen measurement capabilities (hemoglobin saturation in arterial blood), the Apple Watch is evolving into a professional medical device. Also worth mentioning is the new Fitness+ online platform, which integrates the ecosystem of Apple devices with training videos, allowing you to monitor and take care of your body and health.
Large scale initiatives include a partnership with the government of Singapore introducing a two-year LumiHealth program to promote a healthy lifestyle. A mobile application integrated with Apple Watch offers personalized physical activity programs and workouts and motivates the user to engage in regular health checks and immunizations.
Apple is further expanding its Personal Health Records feature, introduced in 2018, to allow smartphone users to access their health records. More than 500 institutions already participate in the program, and in 2020 the first organizations in Canada and Great Britain joined it. Looking at the filed patents, one can presume that Apple is not letting go and continues to work on including features such as non-invasive blood pressure measurement in its smartwatches.