Many healthcare professionals didn’t raise an eyebrow when Google announced innovative plans to make glucose-sensing contact lenses for diabetics, and were similarly quick to dismiss the possibility of crowdfunded transcutaneous glucose sensors. These headlines were disregarded as over-ambitious pandering to stockholders and investors.


However, the recent news that pharmaceutical giant Novartis was partnering with Google to bring these smart contact lenses to market represents a significant shift from the usual background noise of lofty promises and digital health buzzwords. A collaboration between one of the largest consumer technology companies and a large pharmaceutical company provides much-needed legitimacy to the notion that digital health can revolutionize healthcare.

Healthcare Providers Are Stubborn and Skeptical

While the digital health revolution continues to make headlines and break venture capital records, healthcare providers are all too familiar with how difficult it is to translate these innovations to the practice of medicine.

Providers tend to be skeptical of hype and lean heavily on evidence-based medicine. Navigating the maze of FDA approval, marketing, and distribution of medical products require the expertise of massive pharmaceutical companies.

Unlike the health/wellness community which is quick to embrace fads (e.g. new exercise regimens, alternative diets), the medical community is just the opposite, vetting every new medication or device through a rigorous testing process. This caution is warranted, as any little misstep could lead to significant morbidity and mortality.

Pharmaceutical Companies Bank on Medical Legitimacy

That’s where pharmaceutical companies like Novartis come in. Their business model centers on convincing providers of medical legitimacy. These companies have years of experience in sponsoring clinical studies, lobbying government agencies, and jumping through the hoops to bring their products to market and earn the blessing from the FDA.

File photo of a man walking past the logo of Swiss drugmaker Novartis AG in front of a plant in Basel

In addition, pharmaceutical companies have manufacturing and distribution facilities in place to produce massive quantities of intricate, medical grade products. Finally, they have legions of advertising executives and pharmaceutical representatives whose sole purpose is convincing physicians that their product improves outcomes. Their bottom dollar depends on the credibility of their product.

Consumer Technology Companies Thrive on Innovation

Tech behemoths like Apple and Google innovate at breakneck pace because they are funded by selling their products to the masses. With new versions of their products coming out every year, they can afford to make missteps along the way. Buggy release? A software patch can fix the issue later. By adding features and introducing new products, these companies rely on innovation and usability to help increase sales. Projects like Google’s glucose-sensing smart contact lens have a futuristic appeal, much like technology’s current fascination with wearable sensors.

Google-Novartis: The Best of Both Worlds

Think back to 2006, with rumors that Apple is working on bringing a smartphone to market. Most experts scoff at the idea, considering that market was dominated by phone-centric companies like Blackberry and Nokia.

However, Apple found a powerful ally in AT&T. By partnering with an established telecommunications company, Apple could focus on creating an innovative user interface and smartphone experience, while AT&T maintained the cellular backbone for which the iPhone would establish its foothold in a new market.

While not entirely the same, a partnership between an innovative Google and a well-established Novartis provides a best-of-both worlds scenario for digital health. A consumer-facing smart contact lens that improves vision and monitors glucose for diabetics, while at the same time has the backing of the FDA and the healthcare community would epitomize the potential for digital health.  Google brings a certain mystique and “coolness” to the product, whereas Novartis brings a medical credibility that puts providers at ease.

Not only should the healthcare community take notice, but the tech companies in general should as well. If you want doctors to take innovative products seriously, partnering with healthcare companies that have brought products to the market already is a step in the right direction.