Google Health is finally opening up about its plans, and they’re all about search

Google hired David Feinberg from Geisinger Health, a system of hospitals based in Pennsylvania, toward the end of 2018 and put him in charge of a newly created division called Google Health. But the company has remained quiet about the division’s scope and goals.

Now he’s beginning to talk publicly about his plans, and appeared on stage at HLTH, a health care conference in Las Vegas, this week.

Feinberg, a doctor who describes himself as “no tech guy,” is focusing his efforts on Google’s core expertise in search, looking to make it easier for doctors to search medical records, and to improve the quality of health-related search results for consumers across Google and YouTube, according to his statements at HTLH and conversations with people familiar with his plans.

Google has dabbled in health care for years, lured by the size of the opportunity. Health care represents a $3.5 trillion market, which still relies on a lot of manual processes. But the company has struggled with some of its early endeavors, such as its contact lens that aimed to measure blood glucose in tears and its Google Health medical record service, so the hire of Feinberg out of the traditional health sector is a recognition that the search giant will need to partner with the medical sector to have an impact.

Feinberg was put in charge of the company’s health strategy, and reports up to the company’s CEO Sundar Pichai. But he also works with other teams, including search, YouTube, Google’s cloud team and the Verily life-sciences company that’s part of Alphabet (Google’s parent company). His effectiveness will depend, in part, on how well he can convince these other teams to follow his lead.

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Better search in medical records, YouTube, and Google Search

While on stage at HLTH, Feinberg described some of the ideas he’s been kicking around to bring Google’s technology into health care.

“Imagine a search bar on top of your EHR (electronic health record) that needs no training,” he proposed to the doctors and nurses in the room.

That would be a big deal for clinicians. Feinberg noted that his fellow doctors had become “data clerks,” given all the time they spent charting, assigning billing codes and filling out fields in medical records. He didn’t go as far as to say that Google would compete with some of the existing electronic health record companies, like Epic and Cerner, but he did suggest that Google could help with some of the grunt work.

Here’s how he explained it: Doctors could start typing into the search bar, just as they do when the search for answers on Google, and the system would start automatically filling out responses and offering up information. He offered the example of a doctor typing in the number “87” and the system then auto-completes information on the 87-year-old patient with a history of stomach cancer.

He also noted that many doctors will use YouTube when looking for guidance on surgeries. “Your doctor, before they operate on you, they actually go to YouTube. We see that,” he said, and indicated that he wanted to improve the quality of that content. “We want to continue to build information to allow caregivers to take better care of patients, but again that’s scratching the surface.”

People familiar with the group’s plans also say that Feinberg has also been building bridges with the Google search and YouTube teams to improve health searches for consumers, so results are more authoritative, and to ensure there’s less bad advice about health, such as videos that urge people to avoid vaccinating their children.

Feinberg has expressed concerns in private conversations, says one person, about the “Doctor Google” phenomenon. Patients are looking up information and diagnosing themselves, so Feinberg wants to make sure that they don’t assume every headache is a brain tumor.

One idea that’s been tossed around internally, the person said, is to create a separate page that’s like Google Flights, but specifically for health search. It’s unclear, however, if Google Health could monetize this type of feature through advertising, and whether the search team would sign off on that. 

Prior to Feinberg’s arrival, Google has been dabbling in improving the quality of its search-results, given that millions of people use the tool to find medical information. Feinberg is also working to further those projects.

The company has announced that it is working with the Mayo Clinic on surfacing better health content, and it introduced a screening test for clinical depression in 2017.

You can watch Feinberg’s full speech from HTLH here:

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