Google Testing Telehealth Service Linked to Search

Ken Terry

October 24, 2014

Google has launched a pilot of a new service that ties Internet searches to the capability to do video consultations online with local physicians. This venture, if it succeeds, could accelerate the growth of telehealth and could give physicians an easy way to provide remote consults to their own patients, observers say.

In the pilot, when a consumer uses Google to search for information on a particular health condition or set of symptoms, some users will see a "talk to a doctor now" link in the right hand panel of the page. The goal is to help people who do not find what they're looking for get a better explanation of the topic.

"When you're searching for basic health information [for] conditions like insomnia or food poisoning, our goal is provide you with the most helpful information available," Google spokesperson Liz Markman told Medscape Medical News. "We're trying this new feature to see if it's useful to people.

"For this trial, we're working with a number of partners like Massachusetts General Hospital, Scripps Hospital, and One Medical Group, who are making their doctors available," she said.

Physicians who participate in the Google pilot will be featured in a section of the company's website called "Helpouts." In this area, consumers can search for expert advice in many areas, ranging from plumbing to fashion to parenting. Helpouts already includes some physicians and other healthcare professionals, but their names do not pop up when a consumer researches health topics on Google.

The potential audience for Google's new service is huge. Eight in 10 Internet users search for healthcare information online, according to a report by the Pew Internet Project, and Google is by the far the largest search engine.

Dr Google?

"We've been joking around for years about Dr Google, but it's a reality," said Nancy Fabozzi, from Frost & Sullivan, a global consulting and research firm, in an interview with Medscape Medical News. "It's an entrenched behavior among everybody. If they want to know about a disease or a medication, or anything else related to health, the first thing they do is Google it."

Fabozzi believes that if Google decides to introduce the new service, it will be very convenient for a lot of people, especially young people on the go. So this is something physicians should pay attention to, she said.

"Every healthcare provider should be aware of what Google is doing and consider partnering with them," Fabozzi declared. "Because they're not going away."

Jonathan Linkous, chief executive officer of the American Telemedicine Association, noted that Google could have a huge effect on the telehealth market because of its leadership in the search business. That, in turn, will affect physicians. "We're quickly getting to the point where primary care docs are going to have to provide telehealth consults to patients, because if they don't, some other doc will," he told Medscape Medical News.

Keeping It Local

Google is not the first telehealth service to work with local providers. MDLive has a deal with Sentara Health in Virginia, and American Well has done something similar with USF Health in Florida. HealthTap has always offered consultations with local physicians. Some telehealth services, including American Well and Teladoc, give consumers the ability to consult with physicians in faraway locations.

Fabozzi believes Google is using local physicians because of regulatory concerns. "Trying to limit it to local providers is very smart, because even though they say their service is [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)-]compliant, there are a lot of concerns about privacy with Google," she said.

Linkous cited another type of regulatory issue: Different states, he pointed out, have varying licensing requirements for physicians, as well as different telehealth regulations. Google's approach, he said, looks like an attempt to sidestep the need to have physicians licensed in multiple states.

The local physicians that Google is using from Scripps Health, Massachusetts General Hospital, and other healthcare organizations might not have their own patients consult them through Google initially, he noted. But that could change.

"Eventually, local doctors will develop relationships online with their own patients, and they could very well use Google Health to do that," Linkous said. "It provides a platform that a local provider could use to talk with his or her own patients."

Meanwhile, he added, healthcare organizations are using telemedicine to expand their own footprints. He cited the Mayo Clinic, which he said is talking to hospitals across the country about a system that includes e-consults. Similarly, Massachusetts General Hospital could use telehealth to expand referrals to its own facilities.

Competition, he concluded, will force physicians to engage in remote consults with their patients, and Google could provide this capability "at little or no cost to the doctor, so they don't have to create their own [telehealth] portals."

However, it is likely that physicians will pay Google to be listed by its service, and will then charge patients for their consultations, said Fabozzi.


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