When the Big Five Technology Giants Come For Healthcare

Or what we really should be learning from this “threat.”

Tamara StClaire, COO, BaseHealth

“The Big 5 Technology giants are threatening paradigm shifts in an industry that in the last 20 years has struggled mightily to adopt technology.” — Tamara StClaire, COO, BaseHealth

Have you heard the rumors? The ones whispered among colleagues at industry networking events and on company conference calls?

Amazon is building its own electronic health record; Google is sequencing the DNA of a million people; Apple is turning its iPhone into a hub of diagnostic data. Facebook and Microsoft are lurking in healthcare’s shadows, too. And as far as executives of traditional healthcare companies are concerned, the sky is literally falling.

This conversation around the “Big 5” technology giants entering the healthcare market has accelerated to the point that Christina Farr’s entire beat at CNBC is dedicated to reporting on it. And the articles don’t disappoint:

Facebook held a special breakfast for drug marketers about recruiting people for clinical trials

Apple is quietly working on turning your iPhone into the one-stop shop for all your medical info

Microsoft has an idea for using smart glasses to track your diet

Google is training computers to predict when you might get sick

Amazon is hiring people to break into the multibillion-dollar pharmacy market

Conventional “Business 101” wisdom is that large companies struggle to innovate. Per Stanford lecturer Maxwell Wessel in the Harvard Business Review, the same practices that ensure mature companies deliver meaningful earnings to shareholders “also minimize the types and scale of innovation that can be pursued.” Instead, paradigm-shifting technologies come from startups — more agile operations laser-focused on identifying a problem and bringing a solution to the market.

And yet the Big 5 are bucking the trend. They’re threatening paradigm shifts, and doing so in an industry that in the last 20 years has struggled mightily to adopt technology at the rate that’s enabled most other industries to become infinitely more consumer-friendly.

How?

Instead of fearing the disruption these companies will bring to healthcare, we should instead study how they are approaching the industry differently. We can embrace the Big 5 and learn a great deal from them in the process.

Key Learnings From The Big Five

  1. Innovation can be grass roots

Before joining BaseHealth as chief operating officer, I served as the chief innovation officer within Xerox’s healthcare business group. My team and I developed 3 horizons of innovations that included next generation solutions and also embraced mid and long-term strategies. We tested our ideas and built use cases, and we socialized these among important stakeholders at the company.

This approach worked well, and I’m proud of what we accomplished. But innovation does not need to happen in this type of formal, centralized manner.

Amazon epitomizes a decentralized approach to innovation. Instead of appointing a chief innovation officer, each potential employee is asked to describe something they’ve invented. Whether big or small, CEO Jeff Bezos says he “wants to know that they will try new things.”

Once hired, there’s no shortage of opportunity to do just that. In fact, the company’s internal website features a virtual idea box, where employees can submit new ideas whenever inspiration strikes. “Two-pizza teams” have also become famous at Amazon; teams composed of employees from all different functions small enough to be fed by two pizzas. In what is essentially Amazon’s version of Facebook’s Hackathon, these teams are provided an innovation challenge and asked to work together to develop a solution.

2. Shoot for the moon

It would be easy to think of Facebook as a simple social network, Amazon a bookstore, Microsoft an office productivity company, Apple a manufacturer of mobile phones and Google a search engine.

But in reality, those businesses were entry points and subsidies for much greater ambitions on the part of the Big 5. Consider Facebook’s $3 billion acquisition of Oculus to jumpstart its efforts in virtual reality, Amazon’s development of delivering goods even more quickly via drone, and the battle Google and Apple find themselves in for ownership of the autonomous vehicle.

These initiatives and more have helped bring “Moonshot” into our lexicon. Not all of the Big 5’s ideas will become commercially viable, but they are certainly discussed, ascribed to and — importantly — funded. It’s inspiring to see these companies thinking bigger and farther outside their traditional lanes in an effort to revolutionize different industries and improve user experience.

3. Cannibalize your own

There’s no room for romance in business, and sometimes that means rendering one of your own wildly successful products obsolete before someone else does.

In July, 2017, Apple discontinued production of its iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle, effectively bringing the iPod’s 15-year run to an unceremonious end. Of course, the decline of the iPod corresponds with the rise of another breakthrough product delivered by Apple — the iPhone.

Microsoft has been aware of the need to cannibalize its own business since at least 2010, when it was included in a slide deck at its Worldwide Partner Conference. The top priority at that event was convincing partners that moving to the Cloud was the right path forward for Microsoft. Since then, CEO Satya Nadella has dramatically accelerated the company’s transition, directing “resources away from many of Microsoft’s declining legacy businesses and toward cloud computing.”

The continued success of Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon is not a mistake or coincidence. These companies have developed innovative cultures that make them very comfortable moving into and improving different industries.

What other key learnings can the healthcare industry take from the Big 5 technology giants?