Dr Google and Mr Apple

Many years ago (1979), millions of people were introduced to the phrase “In space, no one can hear you scream”. This was the beginning of the “Alien” series of movies, which became one of the most successful franchises in movie history. Incredibly well-made, especially for the time, i.e. before present day computer graphics, the movie Alien was so enjoyable that you barely noticed that you were screaming multiple times throughout it.

Years later, Arnold Schwarzenegger started another movie franchise called “Predator”. In this case an Alien hunter had come to earth in order to hunt … humans. And of course, it was left to Arnold to save the world. It took a while, but producers finally realized that they were looking at a combination almost as good as chocolate and peanut butter. And so began the series of majorly successful movies called “Alien versus Predator” (and yes, I have seen them all, multiple times). With a new movie series, you need a new tagline. And in this case, it was “Whoever wins, we lose”.

The amazing thing about business competition is that whoever loses, we win. Companies have been fighting each other over digital turf ever since the first computer was ever imagined. Today, the world benefits from science-fiction-like creations that were unimaginable even a generation ago. This blog focuses on the specific benefits to medicine of the advances in technology. It is effectively self evident that  the world of medicine and even the whole world will benefit when two of the greatest tech giants, namely Apple and Google, begin to fight it out over the healthcare business space.

I personally always face an interesting dilemma. I am a staunch socialist. I grew up in Canada and then moved to Israel, both of which pride themselves on their socialized model of healthcare. I have been a tremendous benefactor of this type of healthcare. Were it not for socialized medicine, my parents and I would have been financially depleted long ago. While I respect the attempt in the United States to create a socialized version of their health care system, I personally believe it is being incorrectly implemented. I will not say anymore on this topic, in order to avoid pages and pages of commentary.

Despite being a socialist and having seen it work so well [yes, it works very well], business competition focused on making a greater profit is foundational to the technological advances that socialized medicine benefits from. In this lies the conundrum [wrapped in a pita, surrounded by falafel].

Fortunately, when it comes to both Apple and Google, they are both working on healthcare products that are intended to dramatically improve universal availability of medical information and access to healthcare professionals. Somewhere in all of this, they have their business models that keep their stockholders happy. And from my perspective, I see long-term benefits to every patient in need.

Each company has its own take on healthcare delivery. Google recently announced a new feature available via its standard search tool, called “Health info in the Knowledge Graph“. The purpose of this tool is to improve the quality of health information that people get when they search with Google.

Google is already a primary site for finding health information for countless people. In fact, the use of Google is so entrenched in people’s minds that based on search terms, Google can create maps of disease spread.

A very well known example of this is “Google Flu Trends“. By recording on a virtual map, the locations from which people search for terms related to flu, Google can display the spread of this disease across multiple countries. The maps of disease spread have been compared to maps derived from other epidemiological approaches, and a very close match has been found. The significance of this is astounding. One can track the effect and spread of a disease by mapping people’s use of a search tool to learn more about the symptoms that they are experiencing.

Google has now taken things farther and has developed an intelligent agent that reads the search question and provides far more focused information on the specific topic being searched. The graphic below demonstrates the use and power of this new tool far better than any description of mine.

(If the image below is not active, then please click here)

This new Google tool is clearly geared towards the general consumer. It is not integrated into an electronic medical record system [EMR] and it is not intended to create a record  of an individual’s health, that can later be shared with physicians in various locations.

I personally hope that the time will come when Google will offer the option to connect a person’s personal health record to Google search. As I have stated many times before, I am more than willing to sacrifice my privacy in order to gain a better product. I would be from the first people to register for this new service. I could then benefit from the greatly enhanced search capabilities that come from blending personal medical information with the combined knowledge of the web.

As I noted above, Apple has come at the healthcare issue from a different angle. With the last release of the iOS mobile operating system, Apple introduced the world to its suite of healthcare services, collectively referred to as “Apple HealthKit” . It would seem that HealthKit was also, at least originally, primarily intended to be a more personal, consumer oriented tool. But Apple has already succeeded in forming key alliances with major EMR providers in the US, thus greatly increasing HealthKit’s potential.

In a report from earlier this month, it was noted that 14 of the 23 top hospitals in the United States had already rolled out a pilot program for integrating with Apple’s HealthKit. The significance of this process is at least as tremendous as Google’s work. Apple will most likely be integrated into the EMR of the rest of the top hospitals in the US, in the next short period of time. As HealthKit continues to be integrated into healthcare services across America, it may very well soon become the de facto standard for sharing information amongst silos of health information that exist in private clinics, hospitals, other healthcare IT services and more. And eventually, Apple HealthKit will spread across the world and the world’s heralthcare services.

HealthKit could very well become the solution for sharing medical information while still giving the individual patient absolute control over how that information is shared. Because HealthKit is integrated into the Apple mobile phone operating system, one can expect that in the near future, any individual will be able to control the flow of their medical information to any medical service, as that individual sees fit. Any activity on that medical information [for example, if a doctor opens the individual’s medical record in some hospital] will most likely be reflected on the screen of the individual’s phone. Apple may very well solve the entire issue of medical information privacy.

It is actually hard to imagine how amazing the potential of all of this is. In many ways, this is similar to the way in which the world was changed when Apple introduced the iPhone. In eight years from now, it may very well be hard to imagine a world where it was once difficult to access your personal medical information and to share it with whatever doctor or medical service was deemed necessary. I must admit that I am not a major Apple fan, but I cannot thank the company enough for its innovations and its dramatic effects on the quality of healthcare around the world.

So on one hand, we have Google and its search capabilities, geared towards providing any individual with focused medical information. On the other hand, we have Apple making sure that people have full access to their personal medical information and can share it whenever necessary. Combining these two would be greater than the sum of the parts. And in less than a decade from now, the whole world may be benefiting from a quality of healthcare considered unattainable even today.

Thanks for listening

My website is at

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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