Google has become thoroughly embedded in our daily lives since its introduction in late September 1998. By 2006, it had so permeated our culture and language that the word “google” found its way into the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as both a noun and a verb. Today — at a whopping 88.65% share — Google continues to dominate the search engine market in the U.S.
Back in 2006, the company quietly began to explore potential business opportunities in the healthcare sector. The initial intention of Google Health was to create a repository of health records and data that would provide direct connections between doctors, hospitals, and pharmacies. The project failed to gain momentum and was tabled in 2012.
Fast forward to 2019, when David Feinberg, MD, assumed the newly minted position of vice president at Google Health. On his appointment as its leader, Feinberg announced a new initiative to “improve the quality of health-focused search results across Google and YouTube.” New efforts were undertaken in the areas of health-related artificial intelligence (AI) research, machine learning, clinical tools and other healthcare tools and services — all with an emphasis on developing strategic partnerships in the healthcare sector.
For Google, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic presented a unique opportunity to intensify its development of partnerships (e.g., partnerships to aid in pandemic response, optimize clinical workflows, and facilitate health data management). Recent key moves the company has made with other organizations are evidence of its rapidly expanding reach. Consider just a few of its activities and partnerships initiated in the last 2 months of 2020:
- The State of New York launched a web-based tool developed in partnership with Google to connect state residents with resources for food, housing, and COVID-19-related services during the pandemic.
- Google Cloud AI and the Harvard Global Health Institute released new versions of a jointly developed COVID-19 Public Forecasts dashboard that provides projections for hospitalization and death rates across the U.S.
- A wellness app to support the mental health of front-line workers and first responders (developed jointly by Google Cloud and the University of North Carolina) was launched by Camden, New Jersey-based Cooper University Health Care.
- Google began piloting a patient-facing tool developed with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality that aims to improve communication with physicians.
- The company partnered with Meditech to deploy a new cloud-based, subscription model electronic health record (EHR) platform.
- Google Health launched an app that connects individuals to clinical studies, and partnered with Boston-based Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital for the app’s first study focused on respiratory illness.
Where is all of this headed? What are the potential risks and benefits of Google’s surge into the healthcare sphere? One partnership offers a glimpse of what might transpire in the near future.
In 2018 — without much fanfare — Google entered into a partnership with St. Louis-based Ascension, a Catholic hospital system operating in 21 states. The goal was to develop an EHR tool that would allow clinicians to search for data within patient records. When the partnership was made public in late 2019, it stirred a great deal of controversy because the project involved granting Google Health access to an unusually large volume of patients’ medical records (including names and birthdates). This led legislators and legal experts to question whether projects of this type violated privacy laws and confidentiality agreements. It also amplified public distrust of the ad-funded tech giant and raised questions of how it might misuse customer data. With the alarming rise in hacking, the importance of addressing these issues cannot be overstated.
On the flip side, some observers have begun to grasp the enormous potential of Google’s EHR model. Today’s EHRs have long been criticized for their high cost, low efficiency, lack of interoperability, and relatively low usefulness in clinical decision-making. In their recent post, Vince Kuraitis, JD, MBA, and colleagues discuss what they see as clear signs of EHRs evolving and being reimagined as platforms. The platform capability of a Google-like EHR adds functionality that enables overlap of databases and shifts the focus to the value created by integrating and analyzing disparate data. They see the Google-Ascension EHR model as a means of bringing platform functionality directly to clinicians – a healthcare sector known to be resistant to change and innovation.
Google Health’s continued ascent is not guaranteed, but a company with nearly unlimited resources and a global engine of innovation will surely disrupt the status quo. The healthcare industry abhors disruption, and even a world-wide pandemic has only modestly altered the current model of care delivery and payment. I believe that Google will surprise us all in the very near term with its ability to create value — a commodity that is sadly lacking in the nation’s largest industry.
David Nash, MD, MBA, is founding dean emeritus and the Dr. Raymond C. and Doris N. Grandon Professor of Health Policy at the Jefferson College of Population Health. He serves as special assistant to Bruce Meyer, MD, MBA, president of Jefferson Health. He is also editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Medical Quality and of Population Health Management.