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The next privacy battle will be fought over health data

The healthcare domain is growing by leaps and bounds, with contributing factors such as the growing adoption of remote patient monitoring services, easier access to virtual healthcare, booming healthcare spending, increased prevalence of chronic diseases and an improved healthcare system. 

The global health market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 30% during the forecast period of 2022–30. Additionally, mobile phones’ shift from being mere communications media to offering a number of health-related apps and facilitating telemedicine services serves as a key market booster.

Today, the state of privacy in healthcare is facing a grave threat. Patients often disclose health metrics without considering the privacy implications across various platforms, including clinics, social media sites, wearables, mobile applications, tech companies and affiliated third parties. 

More than 26 million people in America have shared their genetic data with one of the four leading ancestry and health databases to discover their background or learn more about their health, regardless of the privacy implications or data safeguarding measures in place. This allows researchers to trace relationships between virtually all Americans, including those who never participated.

IT in healthcare enhances the care experience and reduces cost, but recent developments have amplified digitised health records and ambitious data collection by healthcare entities for research and marketing purposes. Digitised health information becomes a risky affair when it is exposed to security breaches, causing distrust and concern for the potential users of the technology.

Due to the lack of proper cyber-security methods (as stated under HIPAA) for the protection of sensitive health information, billions of patient data records have been exposed to a host of breaches targeting the sector.

Data privacy and security breaches result in trust concerns among patients. To find out more about customers’ stance on privacy and the collection of data, a survey conducted by McKinsey of 1,000 North Americans revealed their increasingly intentional data-sharing stance has made them more likely to share information they think is necessary to interact with organisations.

The impending war over who controls digital health data

Startups and big tech companies alike are participating in the race to grab their share of sensor technologies that can unlock a whole new universe of patient data.

In 2021 alone, venture capitalists globally invested $59.6 billion in digital-health startups, nearly double the previous year’s total, according to CB Insights. Although the investment in 2022 significantly plummeted, the explosive nature of health data has big tech companies like Alphabet, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon already fighting for position over how that data will be served up to healthcare practitioners and patients.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Google is working with Ascension facilities, the US’s second-largest hospital system with 150 hospitals operational in 20 states, to amass and analyse the data of millions of people, which could eventually be uploaded to Google’s cloud computing platform in an effort to improve medical services. In 2021, Google completed the acquisition of Fitbit, the global leader in the consumer fitness-tracking market with more than 111 million registered users, gaining a competitive edge in the wearable devices market with an equivalent to its rival Apple Watch.

Apple has a strong presence in the healthcare industry, mainly through the development of wearable devices, health applications and research initiatives. In 2019, Apple collaborated with prominent organisations such as Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the American Heart Association, the University of Michigan, Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and the University of California. These organisations have shared their clinical data and expertise with Apple to help them gain insights into various health topics, including menstrual cycles, gynecological conditions, heart rate, mobility signals and hearing.

Acquisitions by Apple in healthcare:

  • In 2016, Gliimpse, a software development company that collects and analyses medical data
  • In 2017, Beddit, a company that makes sleep-tracking devices
  • In 2019, Tueo Health, a startup developing an asthma-monitoring system for children
  • In 2020,, a company that creates high-powered AI algorithms

In 2018, Apple introduced the integration of electronic medical record (EMR) data into phone health records, enabling individuals to access and review their medical records. Later the same year, it launched HealthKit, a health record API with the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) standard, to empower individuals to share their health data with third-party apps of their choice. Apple’s Health app integrates health data from iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and iPod touch, including third-party apps and devices that use HealthKit to collect and store data in the Health app, to allow users to view and manage all their health data, such as activities, heart rate, weight, blood pressure and glucose, etc.

In 2023, as per IDC Health Insights’ Q1 Indicators in Life Science IT Spending Survey, Apple was ranked second in both the hardware and software categories. Apple’s healthcare initiatives may still be in the early stages, but with its deep pockets, strong brand, privacy-empowering image and vast user base, the company is well-positioned to disrupt the healthcare industry.

Amazon’s aggressive infiltration in the healthcare sector has opened hospital doors through its cloud arm, Amazon Web Services (AWS), and voice tech expertise. In 2018, it launched Amazon Pharmacy to leverage its delivery power to carve into medical supply distribution spaces, allowing customers to order prescription drugs online. The same year, it acquired PillPack, an online pharmacy that organises medications into individual packets to help patients manage their prescriptions.

In 2020, it launched a telehealth service called Amazon Care, which enables customers to speak to a doctor or nurse via video chat. Amazon’s entry into the healthcare market poses a significant threat to traditional healthcare providers, as it has a number of advantages over them, including a massive employee base and a vast amount of data on its customers.

While other big tech companies are targeting the consumer-facing realm within the healthcare world, Microsoft is focused on its race to lay claim to the healthcare cloud market. Its play hinges on cloud platform Azure, and the data analytics prowess that helps healthcare organisations build and deploy innovative healthcare solutions. Microsoft 365 for Healthcare features a suite of productivity tools that help healthcare professionals collaborate and communicate more effectively.

In collaboration with St Joseph’s Hospital, Microsoft has developed AI tools for the American healthcare system to analyse health data related to surgical outcomes and cancer therapies. Its strategic alliance with CVS Health reimagines personalised care and offers digital transformation to CVS patients and employees. In collaboration with Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA), it is creating personalised, omnichannel healthcare and shopping experiences, powered by new customer experience management technology and data platforms. Of late, Microsoft has partnered OpenAI to exclusively license GPT-3 to leverage its ability to understand and generate human-like language that would help healthcare professionals to communicate effectively with patients, and assist in diagnosing and treating illnesses.


As healthcare data is valuable and vulnerable, whether it is shared or not has a significant impact on the healthcare industry. In the absence of data, innovations in healthcare will come to a halt. Organisations big and small can do a lot more to ease people’s perceptions of data sharing. This includes privacy empowerment, industry standards, collaboration and building a strong security wall around individuals’ personal information.

As big tech’s interest in healthcare rises, it is safe to assume there will be disruption in the healthcare industry. The buck stops at the organisations’ way of handling and treating health data, which harnesses the potential benefits for the betterment of humanity with minimal impact on the privacy of individuals.

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