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The allure of health care for tech giants

Rebecca Zisser / Axios

There are reasons Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and other tech giants aren't more deeply immersed in health care (and have failed in some past projects). Health care has a lot of spending concerns, regulatory hurdles and life-and-death decisions that aren't a part of running a web site or making an iPad.

But health care has a lot of appeal, both from the money to be made and the prospect of helping keep people healthier by analyzing health care data. The industry has moved a lot of its records from paper to digital form, but many people think the information could be made a whole lot more useful and shareable.

Look ahead: If a major tech conglomerate wanted to take a bigger gamble on health care, there are a lot of ways to get in the industry right now. There's already speculation among industry analysts that Apple could try to buy Athenahealth, which makes cloud-based electronic health records for physician offices and small hospitals.

Setting the table: CNBC has reported that both Apple and Amazon are exploring big moves in health care. Apple has designed its health app to be a single repository for a variety of data and is said to be interested in taking that further. Amazon, meanwhile, wants to get into the distribution of drugs and medical supplies.

Other big tech companies have some footprints in health care, which could span from integrating data from medical devices to making their own health gear.

But aside from IBM, most tech companies have traded cautiously in health care — one of the slowest adopters of technology. Although it's rare now, some small hospitals still use paper medical records, despite the billions of federal dollars that helped nudge the shift to electronic records.

Many industry watchers believe Amazon's potential venture of delivering drugs and medical supplies is plausible, since that involves overhauling health care's wasteful supply chain. It'd be an even bigger deal if a tech company bought up a stake to digitize further the $3.4 trillion health care system, perhaps by bidding on companies like Athenahealth.

The Athenahealth-Whole Foods comparison: Some people in the investment community see situational similarities between Athenahealth and Whole Foods, which recently was bought out by Amazon. Both companies have:

Athenahealth could fetch a sale price of around $6 billion — a pittance for the big tech companies that are sitting on mountains of cash. It'd also give them the immediate scale of an advanced product that hundreds of thousands of doctors and hospitals already use daily.

"Athenahealth is a purely cloud-based enterprise, which is increasingly an advantage," said Garen Sarafian, a health tech analyst at Citi Research who put out a report in May that speculated Apple could try to buy Athenahealth. "That should also be appealing for a larger technology company that's trying to get into health care."

Reality check: Apple, Google and Microsoft wouldn't talk about broader health care plans and instead referred to the data analytics projects and consumer health apps they already are working on. Some industry observers are convinced those companies won't move more directly into health care because the industry is too entrenched and complex.

When Farzad Mostashari was the national coordinator for health IT in the Obama administration, he asked someone at Google why the company has not made a bigger play in health care. "This (Google) person said to me: 'We are great at building things for a billion people, and we're not great at building tools for a hundred thousand people.' Health care is just different," Mostashari said.

Buying a company like Athenahealth also would entail a lot of work, and money, to expand into bigger hospitals and academic medical centers that treat more people and house significantly more health data. Converting older and small hospitals to digitized records and data analytics systems is a hard enough challenge, since they often use outdated systems and may not be ready for a huge conversion to cloud-based technology.

"It's like rebuilding LaGuardia airport while you're keeping it open," said Steven Halper, a health tech stock analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald.

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