Above page content

    Site map  Cookie policy


Healthcare could be big business for big tech

Google is now 21 years old. Healthcare is an area in which it could come to dominate in the next two decades, but this isn’t without controversy.

Google is now 21 years old. Healthcare is an area in which it could come to dominate in the next two decades, but this isn’t without controversy.
Garry white employee

Garry White

in Features


Google has come of age. The search engine was 21 years old on Friday last week and, over the past two decades as it has become globally dominant, it has disrupted many businesses that are now struggling to survive. Industries including publishing, retail, travel, payments and music and video distribution have all been significantly upended by the rise of the internet. Google continues to innovate using its substantial financial firepower – and could arguably become even more all-prevailing over the next two decades. So, which industries could the tech behemoth have in its sights next?

Through its search engine, Google is the ultimate gatekeeper to information globally. Its valuable data could be used to disrupt a lot of industries including banking, construction and the legal industry – all areas where information matters. Data will be important to the development of “digital twins”. These are virtual replicas of physical devices that data scientists and IT experts can use to run simulations before actual devices are built and deployed. Virtual reality technologies are likely to revolutionise conferences and meetings, with augmented reality becoming more popular, particularly in entertainment. It is also developing autonomous vehicles to compete directly with the world’s major carmakers.

Big Tech and data

However, perhaps the most exciting – and controversial – application of large datasets will be in healthcare. It is clear Big Tech will have a major role in reshaping the way the medical industry operates. The NHS understands this, but the big problem is public trust – and this is an issue that does not appear to be going away.

Last week, five NHS trusts signed a DeepMind data deal. DeepMind is a UK company that Google bought in 2014 that can process and analyse health data. The Royal Free Hospital, Imperial College, Moorfields Eye Hospital and University College London (UCLH) all agreed to sign up with Google Health UK. However, one NHS Trust – Yeovil – declined to sign an agreement.

This is of note because, in 2017, the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled that London’s Royal Free Hospital failed to comply with the Data Protection Act when it handed over personal data of 1.6 million patients to DeepMind. The data transfer was part of the development of an app called Streams, which is used to detect acute kidney injury.

There has also been controversy over the structure of DeepMind since it was purchased by Google owner Alphabet. When the company was bought, Google promised to keep it at arm’s length. However, earlier this month DeepMind’s health operation was transferred into Google proper. This has created some concern about data security, as patient records contain large amounts of sensitive information.

NHS has signed up

Several NHS trusts involved have said they supported the of DeepMind health unit into the Google fold. UCLH said it was proposed that its DeepMind research partnership – which is related to radiotherapy treatment for patients with head and neck cancer – be transferred to Google Health. “The move will not change the scope of our partnership and the research will be largely undertaken by the same team of experts,” the trust said, arguing that the team will now be able to make use of Google’s scale and experience to deliver potential breakthroughs to patients more rapidly. “We will retain control over the anonymised data and remain responsible for deciding how it is used,” UCLH concluded.

However, there are issues with the development of this technology. Within the NHS’s systems, there are massive datasets that are too large or complex to analyse with traditional methods. This is where machine learning – and Google – comes in using self-updating algorithms that build predictive models by finding patterns in data. This can lead to predictive modelling for the early identification of illnesses in individuals, trends in the wider population can also be identified. The information can even be used to determine more efficient — and perhaps even less expensive — treatment plans.

Not ready yet

The NHS has a significant amount of data. Unfortunately, as with any large organisation, its systems need updating because they are complex and disparate. This explains why the big data revolution that has been promised for so long is taking time to come – much of the data in healthcare systems is of poor quality and in the form of small, incompatible datasets. Current practices around data collection and curation make it difficult to apply machine learning on a large scale. The way data is collected and curated needs to be changed to guarantee data quality, ensure that datasets from different institutions are compatible for pooling, and allow timely access by researchers and others.

So, it is likely to take some time for healthcare providers to get the data in a form that will be useful. However, over this time, it is important that the lack of trust between individuals and the big technology groups is dealt with. The NHS is a health provider and will never be able to analyse this data and reap the benefits without the help of data specialists such as Google or others. As the manipulation of data by artificial intelligence starts to blossom, benefits in terms of human health are there to be reaped. It will be companies such as Google that are leading the charge on this over the next 21 years – it has the skills and the know-how to do this, unlike the NHS. In the future, there will probably be no option but to trust Big Data. But regulators will need to have teeth.

A version of this article appeared in Friday’s Daily Telegraph.  

Nothing on this website should be construed as personal advice based on your circumstances. No news or research item is a personal recommendation to deal.

Get in touch

Find out more

Our focus on clients has endured since the foundation of Charles Stanley in 1792 and has helped make us one of the UK's leading wealth management firms. Your interests give shape to everything we do.

Please call us to talk about your circumstances or complete the enquiry form.

020 3797 1783

Make an enquiry

If you have some questions we'd be happy to help.

Get in touch

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Our latest information

Stay updated

Subscribe to our weekly email newsletter.

Subscribe here

Local Office

Your local office

Your local Charles Stanley office can help advise you on a wide range of investment management services.

Select an office


Newsletter banner signup