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With new coronavirus tracker, Apple and Google may finally get their big break in health care

April 30, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

A woman wearing a mask and gloves tries to use her cellphone on April 22, 2020 in the Queens borough of New York City. - The US -- with nearly 45,000 deaths and more than 800,000 coronavirus infections -- is the hardest-hit country, and healthcare infrastructure in major hotspots such as New York City has struggled to cope. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

For years, Apple and Google have dreamed of breaking into the enormous market for personal health. Apple CEO Tim Cook has said he wants health tech to be considered Apple's "greatest contribution" to humanity, and sought clearance from the Food and Drug Administration so that the latest Apple Watches can monitor your heart rhythm. Google has poured hundreds of millions into research on aging, cancer and neuroscience. Both have acquired health startups, and poached health executives.

Convincing huge audiences to think of Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) as natural players in the health space is likely to open even more doors for the companies in the bureaucratic, highly regulated and massively complex health care sector.

A high-profile failure to gain the trust of users, public health agencies and industry partners could "come back to haunt Apple and Google" in future health initiatives, said Joy Pritts, a health privacy expert and a former top adviser for privacy and security at the Department of Health and Human Services.

But if they can pull it off, she and other experts said, it could finally establish Apple and Google's credentials with the public as trusted, leading players in the health field — paving the way for even bigger opportunities.

Compared to Apple and Google's previous expeditions into health, though, no project stands to affect so many of their users so directly, or so immediately, as the contact-tracing feature the companies are calling "exposure notification. " But it also may create friction with certain governments, who have a big say in whether the companies' technology will be used in their countries.

Under the companies' pandemic plan, public health officials will be able to build special Covid-19 apps that use Bluetooth wireless signals, not location data, to track when two or more devices come into contact with one another.

Only organizations that Apple and Google have recognized will be allowed to tap into the technology, the companies have said, and those developing the apps will need to adhere to strict guidelines established by the platforms.

The location data will help make contact tracing more effective, officials behind the apps told Reuters, and they hope Apple and Google will reconsider their stance on GPS data.

That makes the pandemic monitoring system less of a viable business in itself than a way for Google to show public health agencies what may be possible for them as future Google customers, said Lucia Savage, chief privacy and regulatory officer at the virtual care company Omada Health.

For Apple's part, Savage said the exposure notification project fits neatly into the company's existing strategy with HealthKit: Building platforms and tools that help patients manage their own health care, digitally.

If there had been no pandemic, Apple and Google would probably have discovered, in their own time, how to break into the health sector in a major way.

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