Monday, October 20, 2014

Google Wants to Helpout Your Health

I suppose it was inevitable that I'd end up writing something about Google's interest in health, since recent posts have focused on efforts from Facebook and Amazon, as well as the general gold rush for health IT.  Fortunately Google has obliged me by introducing a neat health-related wrinkle on their Helpouts service.

Google's new service pops up an offer to do a video chat with one of their Helpouts physicians when you are doing health-related searches, in case you want more expert opinions and advice.  It certainly beats getting an ad for a pill or a health aid (although I don't imagine Google will stop presenting those as well).

Let's back up.  For those of you not previously familiar with it (and count me among those), Helpouts is a Google service, launched last November, that allows consumers to connect with applicable experts via live video chats.  Right from the start, they made sure it was HIPAA-compliant and included some physician experts.

The new feature connects the service to search results.  You may not have Google Helpouts top-of-mind when looking for health information, but it's a pretty safe bet that you might use Google search in doing your research.  Pew says 72% of Internet users searched for health information within the past year, with 77% of them starting with a search engine.  Since Google commands about two-thirds of U.S. search results, they undoubtedly answer a lot of health requests -- thus giving them a potentially big market for Helpouts telemedicine feature.  Those Helpouts doctors could be very busy.

"Google Docs" takes on a whole new meaning now, doesn't it?

The telemedicine aspect of Helpouts is not strikingly new.  I've written on telemedicine before, especially about the painfully slow regulatory progress, but it continues to become more mainstream.  According to a recent report by U.S. News & World Report,  about a million patients a year use video services to talk to physicians, and half of U.S. hospitals use some sort of telemedicine, such as video visits or remote monitoring.  There are starting to be plenty of telemedicine options, with more jumping in every day (including a new "virtual health concierge" approach by PlushCare).

What distinguishes Google's effort, of course, that it is pro-active.  It doesn't wait for you to decide things are serious enough to seek out a doctor, but, rather, uses your search activity to trigger the offer of a consult.  I think this will be an important part of our health system's future -- not merely reacting but being proactive.  All these remote monitoring devices are pretty pointless if we don't use them to try to intervene early, instead of waiting for an acute event or an office visit to trigger care.

You have to figure that online content sites like WebMD or Mayo Clinic are kicking themselves for not thinking of this first, or at least not getting their versions in the market earlier.  After all, plenty of shopping sites feature real time chat support, and Amazon offers its cool Mayday feature that connects Fire users to a real person via video.  Surely getting the right health information is more important than picking the right pair of jeans, right?

I have a couple of suggestions, or at least questions, on the new Helpouts feature:

  • It's not clear to me how specific the type of physician available is to the search request.  If you are searching on angina, for example, it'd be nice if you got a cardiologist to talk with rather than a dermatologist.
  • It's not clear to me if the experts are always physicians, or if they triage the experts based on the severity of the information being searched for.  We have this problem that we tend to see physicians as the only authoritative source of information, and that may not always be true.  Rather than starting with the most expensive, least available type of expert, perhaps Google could use their fancy algorithms to match search requests with the most appropriate type of expert, including nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, or pharmacists.
On the second point, I've written before about personal health assistants -- including Better from The Mayo Clinic -- as well as potentially using AI to provide such a service.  I think it'd be even cooler if Helpouts gave you a personal health assistant, starting with an AI agent and progressing to a specific human team if necessary, with physicians available for the most complex needs.  Maybe that's Helpouts 2.0.

Of course, Google's health interests don't end with the current Helpouts approach.  They are already pushing Google Fit as a way for Android developers to connect their health apps, and it'd be a great next step if Google could tie Helpouts to those apps, using the data mined from them to trigger an offer of a consult -- or an intervention, depending on the urgency of the need (e.g., it could trigger a 911 call if your heart monitor indicated a heart attack).

It'd be even better if you could opt-in your own physician(s) and health system to the Helpouts service instead of relying on Google's set of physicians.  That would assume that your providers have the right capabilities, which some might and others will soon develop.  Providing those capabilities might even open a new business opportunity for Google.

As long as I'm already trying to come up with more things Google could do in health, I might as well add that I'd love to see them get into the transparency business.  They try to help consumers find the best prices for other goods, and certainly health care can use all the help it can get in this regard.  There's no shortage of companies already working on the problem, but if any of them aren't worried about what a Google or an Amazon could do if they devoted resources to it, they're being myopic.  At some point the market opportunity will simply be too big to pass up.

Whether Google buys one of the major transparency players or develops their own approach will be interesting to watch.

Google is thinking bigger than these more modest expansions, like their "moonshot" to genetically map a healthy human body, or their new health and well-being company Calico, which has already announced the building of a major research facility.  I like that they are taking the long view, focusing on prevention and cures rather than simply more treatments, but there's still plenty of ways they can help the health care system in the short term as well.

Hmm, Google loves robots: maybe robotic surgery -- or doctors -- is next.

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