How Google Is Impacting Healthcare in the Digital Age

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Nobody can deny the power of Google. The company is worth an estimated $760 billion. Google is the kingpin in a variety of niche markets, from email and internet searches to artificial intelligence (AI). And recently, the tech giant has expanded into the healthcare industry.  As it has done in previous industries, Google is poised to lead the charge towards healthcare innovation. Among other changes, Google (via its parent company, Alphabet) is looking to consolidate patient health records and streamline the diagnosis process for patients with all types of ailments.

To some, Google’s impending takeover of the healthcare industry is problematic and gives the corporation far too much power. Others welcome the changes brought about by Google. Proponents believe that company’s diagnostic tools and Cloud capabilities could improve patient care. The move could also dramatically reduce instances of misdiagnosis, late diagnosis, and patient wait times.

Innovations in Independent Diagnostic Technology

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Google claims that about 5 percent of the platform’s overall search queries are symptom-based.  It is that niche the company is primarily attempting to serve with its diagnostic software and use of its “Knowledge Graph.” The obscure piece of technology first launched in early 2015 but has only recently seen widespread use.

When a patient inputs their symptoms into the Google search engine, the Knowledge Graph returns not only relevant websites but also detailed information about possible conditions that match up with the symptoms. The Knowledge Graph goes even further, detailing typical symptoms and treatment options, as well as the commonality of the condition and whether or not it’s contagious.

Google’s diagnostic software isn’t infallible, however. It’s important for users to understand that a Google symptom search is not meant to replace healthcare professionals. The Knowledge Graph is intended more as a tool to help individuals determine whether their symptoms are serious enough to warrant a doctor’s visit. It is also intended to reduce the chances of a misdiagnosis.

Misdiagnosis is a major healthcare issue that adversely affects more than 12 million Americans annually, and it’s estimated that every adult is misdiagnosed once in their lifetime. The blanket term encompasses more than just an incorrect diagnosis. Catching a medical condition after it’s too late to administer effective treatment is another form of misdiagnosis.

Improving diagnostics over the long-term and in large populations can only be achieved through major industry changes. A team-based approach is necessary to improve the diagnostic process, as is enhanced education for healthcare professionals. Further, Google’s diagnostic software may be a key piece of the puzzle towards reducing instances of wrong or late diagnosis.  

Forging a Deeper Doctor-Patient Connection  

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Like Google itself, the AI company DeepMind Health operates under the umbrella of Alphabet. And as of November 2018, DeepMind is partnering with its more popular sibling, despite previous claims from Alphabet that the two companies would remain separate.

Google will handle the marketing and sales of DeepMind Health products, such as machine learning research apps and big data analysis. Google Health’s algorithms are so advanced that they essentially mimic the human brain while making data connections at lightning-fast speeds.

Insiders claim that the partnership between Google and DeepMind is a step towards the globalization of DeepMind’s products and services. One of its most innovative is the Streams app, designed for use by healthcare professionals.

The app collects patient data and different types of personal medical information, and brings it all together. This helps ensure that nothing is missed, and puts patients with potentially serious symptoms and conditions at the front of the patient queue.

Time-saving Devices

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Streams is currently being used in the U.K. at National Health Service (NHS) facilities, and doctors and nurses there are reporting that the app saves them around two hours every day. That’s a significant amount of time where patient care is concerned, giving healthcare professionals more time to spend on each patient, thus improving quality of care.

Medical imaging tools also fly under the banner of Google, using its Cloud. Many healthcare professionals are embracing Google’s AI merger due to the perceived strengths of technological advances such as Cloud-based imaging.

In an interview with Modern Healthcare, CEO of Ambra Health Morris Panner declared his thoughts on Google healthcare’s analytical potential. “One of Google’s core strengths is the management and analysis of big data,” Panner said. “They would really like to aggregate data and potentially provide deep workflow insights.”

Health Status Discretion and Stigma-Based Considerations

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Some medical conditions are considered by patients to be embarrassing, from mild conditions such as incontinence and constipation to more serious conditions, including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). These conditions are costly, at both the social and financial level. The estimated direct annual cost of STIs in the U.S. is more than $16 billion, but the social cost is even higher.

Young people are especially susceptible to the perceived STD-related stigma, research indicates. A 2009 study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) concluded that “stigma associated with STDs may be an important barrier to STD prevention and care.”

The individuals cited by the study ranged in age from 15 to 24, the population with the highest age-specific rates of both chlamydia and gonorrhea, which are two of the most frequently reported infectious diseases in the U.S. Chlamydia, in fact, is the country’s most common preventable disease, affecting 1.7 million people in 2017 alone. Individuals in the 15-24 age bracket are the most likely to contract the STI.

More Accurate Reporting Numbers

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One life-threatening STD that remains underreported, in the workplace and elsewhere, due to its perceived stigma, is HIV. While most U.S. employees aren’t required to declare their HIV status, those who work in industries with the risk of exposure to blood or other bodily fluids must come clean.

Discrimination on the basis of an individual’s health status is illegal according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, many individuals living with HIV find that disclosing their positive status often negatively impacts both their employment prospects and personal relationships. HIV’s stigma may also hinder patients from seeking care, and Google is seeking to eliminate that reality.

Google’s healthcare sector hopes to improve on STD-related data, in an effort to identify potential outbreaks. In 2016, Google allowed four different academic institutions to access user search data to be used in research studies. With the data obtained from Google, researchers hope to “correlate this data with new cases of STDs being reported in order to act with local health providers to anticipate new significant outbreaks and alert the population to take added precautions to prevent infection.”

The corporation’s decision to share user search engine data has been met with dissent and concerns over patient privacy.

Google Health and Patient Data Privacy

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Privacy issues are nothing new for Google. Since its launch in 1998, the search engine giant has come under fire for a variety of privacy-related matters, including alleged Google Chrome search tracking and numerous data leaks.

Many of us may have forgotten about the following blemish on Google’s reputation. The company settled privacy charges brought on by the Federal Trade Commission in 2012 by opting to pay a civil penalty of $22.5 million, a record amount at the time. FTC complaints against Google alleged that the tech giant “misrepresented” its use of cookies and targeted ads to users of Apple’s Safari browser.

As in 2012, privacy issues are the primary area of contention towards Google Health. Google’s infiltration of the healthcare industry is also ushering in a slew of patient privacy concerns, most notably in response to the Streams app.

Opponents of the Google/DeepMind Health merger believe that Google Health is profit, rather than patient, focused. Further, they say that the company could eventually take user data and claim it as its own intellectual property, contributing to higher healthcare costs and compromising patient privacy.

According to DeepMind, these privacy concerns are unfounded. The 10 NHS hospitals that are using Streams to process data retain “strict control” of patient information, DeepMind says, adding that “all decisions about its use will continue to lie with . The move to Google does not affect this.”

Peer-reviewed studies are needed to determine the accuracy of DeepMind’s claims, however.

Our Changing Healthcare Landscape

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Google and DeepMind don’t hold all the cards when it comes to innovations in healthcare, however. We’ve seen a variety of exciting advancements to the industry in recent years, such as blockchain technology, AI, and robotics.

Healthcare robotics is a particularly interesting market that, like Google, can ultimately lead to better, more accurate diagnostics and a streamlined patient experience. Robots in healthcare provide sophisticated levels of measurability and traceability, making them more accountable than human beings.

Healthcare AI is poised to revolutionize the industry, significantly improving patient outcomes while simultaneously reducing healthcare costs. One of the ways that AI technology translates to better patient care is with wearables and medical devices, which are known as the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT). Monitoring devices, including blood glucose and heart rate monitors, fall under the IoMT blanket.

As of January 2018, there were more than 3.7 million IoMT medical devices in use worldwide, but they can’t perform in a vacuum. The IoMT requires medical professionals to interpret and input much of the data collected. The lines of communication between patient and caregiver must remain open to ensure maximum efficiency and accuracy.

It’s important to note that robots, AI, and the IoMT aren’t intended to replace the healthcare professional. They’re designed to ease the burden of overwhelmed nurses and primary caregivers, reducing costs while improving patient care. Ultimately, that is also the overarching goal of Google Health, despite claims that the company exists solely to make a profit.

Ensuring Patient Compliance with the IoMT

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As for making a profit, few industries do as thorough of a job as the pharmaceutical industry, which also has a strong presence in the IoMT. Prescription drug spending currently exceeds $309 billion each year, a number that’s not surprising given the fact that more than 50 percent of U.S. adults take at least one prescription medication.

But the medical adherence of those patients leaves plenty of room for improvement. We’ve previously reported that between 20 and 30 percent of prescriptions are never filled. Further, about half of patients who are prescribed medication do not take that medication as prescribed. These failures in patient medical adherence are responsible for an estimated $250 billion in unnecessary healthcare costs.

The lack of adherence also contributes to facility congestion and longer patient wait times, since those who fail to take medicines as described are likely to relapse or develop additional symptoms that require treatment. An estimated 125,000 people die due to nonadherence.

Are Smarter Pills Key to Patient Adherence?

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A patient’s failure to adhere could be due to a number of factors, ranging from psychological to socioeconomic. Some patients simply have trouble remembering to take their medication, while others stop treatment if they don’t see results in a reasonable timeframe. Still others have mobility issues that make visiting a pharmacy a hardship. Or, they may find the cost of medication to be prohibitive.

No matter the reason, various IoMT devices may just bridge the gap of nonadherence to create a more cohesive continuum of care and improve overall outcomes. For example, pill reminder apps may be a key to improving medication adherence, and so-called “smart pills” are being tested that are designed to monitor patients from inside the body.

Essentially a multivitamin-sized embodiment of the IoMT’s overarching goals, the first smart pill was approved for human use by the FDA in 2017. Equipped with data-tracking technology, the single-use capsules monitor bodily functions via the patient’s gastrointestinal tract. Information including PH, temperature, and blood pressure is sent to a data receiver, which must be worn by the patient for several days. That data can then be uploaded to a computer at the facility or office where the pill was administered.

Proponents of the technology claim that, while smart pills could indeed raise patient adherence numbers, the possibility of danger exists. The monitoring system could actually harm the doctor-patient relationship, ultimately “dumbing down” patient care.

Final Thoughts

Google’s foray into the healthcare sector is not without controversy, but the benefits of the company’s DeepMind Health merger vastly outweigh its alleged pitfalls. And the best way to discern the efficacy of Google Health is by trial and error, using a multidisciplinary approach.

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Brooke Faulkner

Brooke Faulkner is a mom and writer in the Pacific Northwest. She is passionate about sharing her knowledge about the healthcare industry to help both healthcare providers in providing quality care, and families like hers in getting the healthcare they need.

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