Google Health hires FDA's former digital health chief to lead global strategy

As Alphabet-backed Google pushes further into healthcare, the tech company has gotten good at poaching talent from health systems and regulatory agencies.

Google has tapped Bakul Patel, the former head of digital health at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to develop and lead its unified digital health and regulatory strategy, according to a LinkedIn post.

Patel spent 13 years at the FDA, leading its regulatory and scientific efforts covering digital health devices. During his tenure, the agency launched a center of excellence to oversee digital health products such as smartphone apps, wearable devices and software-based treatments, which he was tapped to lead. He also helped develop the FDA's framework for reviewing artificial intelligence products and an action plan detailing a multipronged approach to advance oversight on aritificial-intelligence- and machine-learning-based medical software. 

Patel left his role at the FDA last month.

"The power of technology, when coupled with a unified digital health and regulatory approach, promises to transform people’s lives. I want to continue to build a world in which we use technology to engage individuals, caregivers and communities globally in care delivery, enabling us to reach populations that have long been overlooked, marginalized and underserved," Patel said in a statement posted Monday on his LinkedIn page.

Patel said his goal is to use digital information and technology to identify and predict the onset of disease before symptoms appear, "literally changing, improving, and protecting people’s lives," he wrote.

Patel told Stat in an interview that his new role will allow him to influence the uptake of health AI tools not only in the U.S. but also in developing countries that lack the resources available to most Americans.

From consumer-facing products like sleep tracking tech with its Nest Hub smart home devices and Fitbit wearables to clinical initiatives like its Care Studio EHR search tool and its health AI work, Google has intensified its focus on health tech and expanded its reach into the healthcare market.

Google Health has been ramping up its focus on building AI and machine learning tools to be used by consumers and providers. The tech company has developed AI tools that accurately interpret retinal scans to detect diabetic retinopathy, it has researched how to use AI to scan ultrasound images for potentially deadly pregnancy complications and is working on research that explores how a smartphone’s built-in microphones could record heart sounds when placed over the chest.

Other Alphabet companies also have tapped FDA leaders, including Verily hiring Amy Abernethy, M.D., former principal deputy commissioner and acting chief information officer at the agency. Abernethy is leading Verily's clinical trials platform.

Outside of the FDA, Google Health has poached other high-profile healthcare executives such as former Obama administration official Karen DeSalvo, M.D., Vindell Washington, M.D., who served as the national coordinator for health IT and David Feinberg, M.D., who has since left Google for Cerner.