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Google, Amazon and Microsoft in Battle to Store Health Data in the Cloud

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09/10/2019 | 09:45am EDT

By Melanie Evans

Amazon.com Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google are striking sweeping agreements to store data and develop software for hospitals, as the technology giants wrestle for control in health-care and cloud-computing markets.

Google will announce Tuesday a 10-year deal with the Mayo Clinic to store the hospital system's medical, genetic and financial data. Providence St. Joseph Health in July said it reached a data-storage agreement with Microsoft. Later that month, Cerner Corp., one of the largest electronic-health-record companies, unveiled its cloud-storage agreement with Amazon's cloud-computing unit, Amazon Web Services.

Some hospital-system and company officials said they expect to jointly develop new software by combining data and expertise of health-care companies with tech giants' computing power and engineering know-how. "Google can't do this alone. We can't do this alone," said Cris Ross, Mayo's chief information officer. The terms weren't disclosed.

Patient records will be kept private and access will be controlled by Mayo, Mr. Ross said.

Data analysis can identify undetected patterns that will help with insights into disease, said Mr. Ross. Many algorithms in development seek to improve the speed or accuracy of tests that screen for disease.

"Being able to use this data is almost like a new microscope," Thomas Kurian, Google Cloud's chief executive, said.

Mayo and Providence St. Joseph may also share intellectual property from joint software efforts, tech and health-care executives said.

Google will open an office for its engineers in Mayo's Rochester, Minn., headquarters. Moving Mayo data to the cloud -- about three petabytes and growing rapidly -- is expected to be finished in about three years, executives said.

In the past decade, hospitals rapidly moved patient records to computers from paper, creating an explosion of data that is costly to store and cumbersome to use because hospitals rely on multiple software programs that often don't work together. Now, hospitals are seeking new ways to collect and organize that data, so it can be analyzed for new treatments or drug discovery.

Hospital systems have invested heavily in their own data storage, for greater control over data security, but at a growing cost for increased capacity and improved cybersecurity, said health-care analysts.

Some have been reluctant to write off that investment, which has slowed entry into the cloud, as did security concerns in recent years, some analysts said.

That is changing as hospitals weigh whether to opt for cloud storage rather than replace aging data centers, said Gregg Pessin, a health-care technology analyst at Gartner Inc., a research and consulting firm. Hospitals can't buy computer equipment as cheaply as tech giants, which also have more to invest in cybersecurity, he said.

Nonetheless, security risks remain a concern. Capital One Financial Corp. in July said the bank suffered a breach of 106 million records from the cloud, after a hacker allegedly took advantage of a configuration vulnerability.

Cerner will move some corporate systems into Amazon's cloud along with data from electronic health records and other services, under its agreement announced in July. It will continue to work with other technology companies, a spokeswoman said.

Cerner previously worked with Amazon Web Services to develop a prototype virtual scribe to record information from exam-room conversations into the medical record. Health-care quality, operational improvement and waste are all opportunities for machine learning, said Shez Partovi, director of global business development for health care, life sciences and genomics for Amazon's cloud unit.

Amazon, Microsoft and Google are investing to win health-care cloud business, introducing built-in software to more easily analyze data for use by doctors and communicate, said Jeffrey Becker, a senior analyst at research and consulting company Forrester Research Inc. The companies are competing for the cloud-computing market, where Amazon is the largest by revenue, Gartner data show.

As they compete for health-care business, technology companies are also making inroads into that industry. Amazon acquired online pharmacy PillPack Inc. and joined Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. in a health-care joint venture to better control employee health-care costs.

That has some hospital systems choosing their technology contracts carefully. "Microsoft wants to make heath care better, they don't want to do health care," Rod Hochman, Providence St. Joseph's chief executive said as the Renton, Wash.-based system announced its agreement the tech company. "We don't see them as a competitor that wants to do our business."

Work with Providence St. Joseph will involve research and development, with pilot projects that will likely change or be canceled, said Peter Lee, a corporate vice president at Microsoft. "We are joining at the hip to build technology," he said.

Write to Melanie Evans at Melanie.Evans@wsj.com

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