Thoughts on the Google Health Dissolution and Cerner’s New CEO
For me, vacation is a time to get away – to completely disconnect and go off-the-grid. This year, that involved a trip to my home state of Colorado and backpacking into the wilderness. What a release – to simply be in the presence of nature’s beauty.
Now, August is typically a very quiet time in the industry. Sure, there was HIMSS, but that was more of a non-event; did not miss much there. Epic’s UGM also happened at the end of the month, but we had that well covered by Alex and Brian. I feared little, if anything, of significance would happen.
I was wrong.
During that brief time away, Google announced the disbandment of its Google Health division. Concurrent with that, Google Health’s former leader, Dr. David Feinberg, got the nod from Cerner’s board of directors to be its next CEO, replacing departing CEO Brent Schafer.
Google Health Dissolves – Again
In late 2018, Google hired Dr. David Feinberg to help consolidate its many initiatives in the healthcare IT sector. Feinberg’s tenure started off bumpy with the exposure of the partnership between Google Health and Ascension, which predated his hiring. This partnership, though entirely legal, faced intense scrutiny (particularly regarding patient data privacy) that even included testimony on Capitol Hill. Not the easiest of starts for a new leader coming straight from Geisinger, a major non-profit health system.
The Ascension partnership resulted in the release of Google Health’s only real product, Care Studio, which is undergoing testing and deployment at Ascension and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center here in Boston. Care Studio is architected as an EHR-agnostic solution to overlay a heterogenous EHR ecosystem across a health system and beyond, aimed at improving a clinician’s access to patient information. The solution combines Google Search functionality with health data normalization capabilities it developed with Ascension.
Under Feinberg, Google Health also formed a partnership with Mayo Clinic, targeting analytics and AI. Google Health established a partnership with Stanford Medical that focuses on precision medicine. In addition to these, the company has a number of other partnerships targeting specific, siloed, clinical needs, e.g., lung cancer, imaging, etc. To date, nothing has been made public or productized from these efforts.
But all of that may be for naught as once again, Google gets cold feet about the healthcare sector and dissolves its Google Health division, sending bits and pieces of Google Health to other domain leaders. Under this new leadership structure, various initiatives at Google Health can now be killed off quietly with little, if any, scrutiny.
This all begs the question: Was this disbandment an acknowledgement that healthcare is too tough a market to grapple with, even for the likes of Google?
Or was the disbandment more a function of disillusionment in lack of progress under Feinberg’s leadership?
I’d argue that Google/Alphabet has every intention of staying in healthcare, as represented by its continuing investments in life sciences via Verily, its continuing health-centric efforts with Google Cloud (and their strategic partnership with Meditech), and simply the number of postings for healthcare sector positions still listed on the Google Health home page.
That leaves me wondering; was it Feinberg’s leadership? This may have played a role, but likely a small one. Feinberg is a visionary and his accomplishments at Geisinger and UCLA are noteworthy. However, Feinberg has never worked for an IT company, let alone one as big, as expansive and as public facing as Google. With little product background and even less software background, Feinberg – while a highly visible personality in healthcare – may not have been the best choice for leading Google Health.
Google will continue to probe the healthcare IT sector for new opportunities to leverage its core competencies. But the company will likely be quieter and less public with its announcements and intentions in this sector.
Expect the company to focus on its AI/ML efforts via Deep Mind and other, disease-specific solutions. And there is Care Studio, a product still in its infancy, but possibly an important one for exposing a patient’s complete longitudinal record spanning a heterogenous EHR landscape.
Cerner Board Once Again Looks Elsewhere for Next Leader
It was not surprising to see the Board of Directors bypass Zane Burke as Cerner’s next CEO and appoint an outsider – Brent Schafer – to take on the leadership role at Cerner. This signaled a change at Cerner; that the company was to be run differently than it was under founder Neal Patterson, who passed away due to cancer.
Under Shafer’s leadership, the company underwent some painful but necessary restructuring to optimize company performance and margins. Shafer joined the Board in seeking talent from outside of Cerner to fill key positions with those now occupying the C-suite, almost entirely from outside Cerner and even the healthcare industry.
While short-term thinking Wall Street analysts applauded these decisions, I had my doubts. Sure, the company required a more disciplined approach to product development and subsequently, many questionable products were put in stasis. But there was collateral damage. Many very talented Cerner associates began heading for the doors or worse, were let go. Today, Cerner seems to have lost nearly its entire middle layer of management that were responsible for getting things done. Losing such institutional knowledge is a dangerous game to play and few companies survive it well.
I had hoped that the Board would have recognized this troubling trend and taken action to rectify it with the appointment of Cerner’s next CEO. Cerner had a wealth of internal talent, including their President, Donald Trigg, who rose through the Cerner ranks and had intimate knowledge of the company’s strengths and weaknesses. But rather than look internally, the Board once again looked outside for its next CEO by choosing David Feinberg.
As I expressed earlier, Feinberg is a visionary and is known for building a culture, but leading one of the largest health IT companies in the world? It seems unclear how they imagine this unfolding. I’m still pondering the whys and wherefores of this decision, and to date, I can only come up with one logical explanation: The Board wants to sell Cerner and needs an agreeable figurehead at the helm to give the company credibility.
I could be wrong. I hope all my reservations are ill-founded and would honestly welcome it, as the market needs a strong competitor to Epic to keep them on their toes and drive future innovation in the broader market. In the meantime, I await with bated breath the outcome of this decision and wish Cerner and its associates a clear and compelling path forward that all can rally around, driving innovation forward to improve the quality and delivery of care worldwide.