Google says health projects will continue even as it unwinds dedicated health division

Google says it is ramping up its investments in health-focused initiatives even as it dissolves its single unified health division.

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.

But those projects will now be split across Google's myriad teams and divisions as the tech giant pivots away from a unified health strategy and reassigns its 570 employees across the company, according to a leaked memo obtained by Insider.

Google Health chief David Feinberg, M.D., who joined the company in 2019, jumped ship to health IT company Cerner as its new CEO and president. The electronic health record software company announced the move late last week.

Meanwhile, the projects and teams that make up Google Health will now be scattered across different parts of Google, Insider reported Friday. 

A source at Google said the company remains deeply invested in health-focused initiatives but confirmed there will no longer be a single entity at the company focused on health projects.

The teams under Feinberg will all continue on, and there will be no job eliminations or project changes.

In a memo sent to employees Thursday, Jeff Dean, Ph.D., the head of Google's research division and Feinberg's boss, said Google Health would no longer function as a unified organization, Insider's Hugh Langley and Blake Dodge reported.

RELATED: Google reorganizes health division, shedding 130 employees and dropping consumer health focus: report

Google's chief medical officer, Karen DeSalvo, M.D., who leads the team focused on regulatory and clinical matters, will now report to Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker, the memo said.

Google Health's clinicians team, which is building a tool for physicians to more easily search health records, will now report directly to Dean. The health AI group, focused on projects like medical imaging, will report to Yossi Matias, the vice president of search and AI, Langley and Dodge reported.

The move to shutter the dedicated health division signals the end of a unified healthcare strategy at Google, Jeff Becker, principal analyst for healthcare at market intelligence firm CB Insights, told Fierce Healthcare.

"They are going back to a business-line vertical healthcare strategy, rather than the top-down pursuit of healthcare at scale at Google. The fractured healthcare strategy across Google never did get resolved," he said. 

He added, "Nest is still following its health strategy, Fitbit has its own healthcare strategy as does Google Search, and that's on the consumer-facing side. Google Health has an enterprise health strategy while Google Cloud has an enterprise health strategy and so does Verily. Different parts of the business are still pursuing a non-unified and non-cohesive healthcare strategy."

In a statement provided to Fierce Healthcare, a Google spokesperson said "Google deeply believes in the power of technology to improve health and wellness and we have increased our health investments across the company. This has included developing projects within Google Health, launching and expanding health-related features on Search, Maps and YouTube that reach billions of people, and welcoming Fitbit."

"Today, health is a growing, company-wide effort and the Google Health name will continue and encompass our projects that share the common purpose to improve global health outcomes," the spokesperson said.

RELATED: Google debuts AI-powered app to help consumers identify common skin conditions

Google reorganizes its health teams … again

Google Heath was formed in 2018 as a way to silo all of the tech giant's health efforts under one division. The company tapped Feinberg, former CEO of Geisinger Health, to lead it and develop a centralized, overarching strategy for the health-focused projects.

Back in June, the tech giant’s health division went through a significant reorganization, resulting in a downsized team and a streamlined focus on clinical and regulatory work rather than consumer-facing offerings, Fierce Medtech's Andrea Park reported, based on initial reporting from Insider.

That reorg included a transfer of nearly 20% of Google Health’s staff to other teams throughout the company, including its search division and newly acquired Fitbit.

"That was telling and a sign of another fracturing of the unified healthcare strategy," Becker said.

He added, "Google’s health strategy was notoriously fractured. We saw some early movement that it looked like this was going to go somewhere."

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Google Health created community mobility reports to aid public health efforts and worked with Apple on exposure notification technology. Google Health has built out clinical tools like Care Studio, developed an AI-powered dermatology assist tool and ramped up partnerships with health systems through its Google Cloud healthcare data products

RELATED: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center joins Ascension to pilot Google's EHR search tool

Former employees previously told Insider that Google Health had a central business development team to explore ways the product area could make money, Langley and Dodge reported. The idea is to bake healthcare into what Google's already doing as opposed to making it a separate line of business.

And that could prove to be a more pragmatic approach to creating a revenue stream for different healthcare-related products.

"David was brought in to establish a broader aim and vision for the portfolio but other parts of the business seem to do just fine with their own niche. Maybe the more pragmatic approach is to let businesses that know those product lines verticalize them independently," Becker said.

Tech giants have struggled to rebrand as health tech companies. Microsoft tried and failed at a personal health records business. Microsoft HealthVault launched in 2007 but ultimately closed down in 2019 because of low adoption.

There also came news last week that Apple is reportedly scaling back one of its most ambitious healthcare projects. According to a report from Insider, Apple is scaling back HealthHabit, an internal application that Apple employees can use to track fitness goals, talk to clinicians and manage hypertension.