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11 May 2018

Fitbit services pivot continues, now entwined with Google Healthcare API

Google’s new Healthcare API has netted a high-profile user. Fitbit has announced its plan to use the system, as it continues its pivot from hardware to software and services. The objective is to combine data pulled from Fitbit devices with Electronic Medical Records (EMRs), to augment the data available for diagnoses.

The healthcare industry is slowly coming round to the idea of using data from such devices, even if they have not passed the extensive testing and certification processes that traditional medical equipment is subjected to. However, that acceptance is more readily available when considering the device data in aggregate, at large scales, rather than on a per-patient basis. That is still a significant hill to climb.

But what the devices to offer are a way of monitoring and interacting with patients, as part of long-term care programs. An example provided by Google and Fitbit would be a doctor checking up on a patient with hypertension or diabetes, to intervene if daily activity goals are not being met. In this example, the Google Healthcare API is the back-end interface linking the two components.

Launched back in March, the Cloud Healthcare API service is part of the Google Cloud portfolio. Google says it provides compatibility between key healthcare-specific data types, including HL7, FHIR, and DICOM. It should facilitate analytics on these data sources too, within Google’s platform of course, and while it is in early access now, Google plans to roll it out through the year. There are more details in the announcement, if needed.

“At Google, our vision is to transform the way health information is organized and made useful,” said Gregory Moore, VP for Healthcare at Google Cloud. “By enabling Fitbit to connect and manage key health and fitness data using our Google Cloud Healthcare API, we are getting one step closer to this goal. Together, we have the opportunity to deliver up-to-date information to providers, enhancing their ability to follow and manage the health of their patients and guide their treatment.”

Google is also winning a new cloud computing customer, as Fitbit has announced that it will be moving across to the Google Cloud Platform (GCP). It cites scalability as a key motivating factor, as well as the GCP’s compliance with the HIPAA regulations that can prove pretty tricky for healthcare developers. Also on tap are Google’s new AI-based services, which Fitbit is planning to use on its population data analysis.

This access should allow Fitbit to provide a better customer experience, through improvements in its application. Google also stands a better chance of securing larger deals for access with healthcare providers, which Fitbit can then leverage via the GCP. However, Fitbit might have a more agreeable brand for healthcare practitioners than Google.

“Over the past decade, we have built an incredible foundation as the leading wearables brand, helping millions of people around the world make lasting behavior changes that improve their health and wellness through fun and engaging experiences,” said James Park, co-founder and CEO of Fitbit. “Working with Google gives us an opportunity to transform how we scale our business, allowing us to reach more people around the world faster, while also enhancing the experience we offer to our users and the healthcare system. This collaboration will accelerate the pace of innovation to define the next generation of healthcare and wearables.”

It’s worth noting that Google’s Nest wing had cropped up in rumors regarding Nokia offloading its own healthcare wing – which was based on its $190m acquisition of Withings. If this is indeed indicative of Google’s desire to get further into consumer healthcare, as its API service also suggests, then perhaps a closer relationship with Fitbit might eventually lead to a full-blown acquisition.

Fitbit would be a good thing to acquire, as it would play nicely with Google’s smartphone ambitions. If it were housed inside the Nest wing, it would provide the data needed to provide more of the ‘lifestyle’ services that Nest seems keen on. As Fitbit places more importance on its software and services, due to the wearable market’s incredible race to commoditized hardware, it moves closer to Google’s apparent preferences.

In the meantime, Fitbit is also expanding its mobile application, adding messaging and menstrual cycle tracking features for its Versa and Ionic smartwatches. The new messaging feature only works on Android, for now at least, but enables a user to reply to messages received by their phone through the watch.

This and the menstrual cycle tracking are apparently two of the most asked-for features. Another quirk, perhaps potential sign of how garbled Fitbit’s codebase is, is that the cycle tracking is coming to Windows and iOS before Android.

Reproductive health has been a hot area in startups for a while now, with a range of devices and applications cropping up that aim to provide users with a better understanding of their bodies. Some aim for medication-free contraception, others simply for more insight into what actions impact their health.

The new features in the Fitbit app allow users to log their flow and discharge, as well as other physical symptoms like tenderness and headaches. In addition, it should provide a fertility window, which is useful for those looking to get pregnant. Fitbit says it takes around two cycles before the app is in sync and accurate.