Google is still ‘all in’ on health care: Chief health officer Karen DeSalvo

Alphabet’s Google is “still all in on health,” according to its chief health officer, despite the demise of its recent attempt at a formalized business unit for the health-care sector.

The tech giant founded Google Health in 2018 and at one point grew it to 500 employees, but dissolved the unit in August. The department was established to head the tech company’s health strategy but Google faced backlash in recent years over the intersection of Google, AI and health data. 

Google’s previous health chief, David Feinberg, left his post at the company to become CEO of health IT vendor Cerner shortly after the unit’s dissolution. The rest of the health team was transferred to other parts of Google to follow through with the organization’s health plans. 

“The real pressure is ‘is this really going to help millions of people?’,” Feinberg had said at a conference in June in response to questions about need to generate revenue. “Is it Google scale? That’s the pressure.”

Deals between Google and companies like Cerner were a point of concern about health data privacy.

Google chief health officer Karen DeSalvo said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Tuesday in an interview with CNBC’s Bertha Coombs that although the unit as a whole has been dissolved, the tech company wants to “weave health into everything we do.” 

In Google’s new strategy, DeSalvo said it will continue to focus on the three areas that it believes it can make a difference in users and their communities: through its search capabilities, access to cloud tools for caregivers, and providing community context around social determinants of health “that drive health almost 80%.”

It has formed partnerships with health-care associations such as the Mayo Clinic, Ascension and HCA. DeSalvo said by using data, AI, and cloud, Google wants “to broaden the ways we can come to the table.”

A previous partnership with Ascension was ended when public distrust in user data and privacy forced Google to drop the deal. 

Google’s $2.1 billion acquisition of Fitbit faced scrutiny due to privacy concerns of personal data. The deal was investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice over the tech giant having access to private data through Fitbit. In response, Google said the acquisition was about Fitbit’s hardware rather than gaining access to user health data. Google pledged not to use customers’ health and wellness data for its ad tracking, among other assurances.