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How Google Is Influencing Medicine in 2020

February 10, 2020

How Google Is Influencing Medicine in 2020

By Debra Wood, RN, contributor

From its founding in the 1990s, Google has grown as a search engine and continues branching into artificial intelligence through different entities, under its parent company Alphabet.

“We live in a world where the information monopoly of professionals has been shattered forever,” said Michael L. Millenson, president of Health Quality Advisors and an adjunct associate professor of medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “Google has opened up information capabilities that were never there before.”

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Dr. Google educating patients

Google’s search engine has enabled patients and their family members to look up information about various illnesses, finding results in a matter of seconds. Often people search for various symptoms, trying to self-diagnose, which has led to the nickname “Dr. Google.”

“Patients always ‘Google’ their symptoms first,” said Miriam Knoll, MD, a radiation oncologist at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.

While engaging patients in their care is encouraged, physicians and other providers voice concern about all of the inaccurate information on the Internet, such as herbal cures for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a top Google health-related search.

“It can be misleading if you have minimal knowledge of medicine,” said KR Kurtis Kim, MD, FACS, RPVI, at The Vascular Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “I like it more than not. I would rather have them interested and answer their questions during the visit.”

But if patients are going to search, where should they get their online health information?

Carol Thelen, CRNP, a family nurse practitioner with Mercy Personal Physicians at Lutherville, Maryland, recommends “patients visit the websites of the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic.” Additionally, she suggests looking for information at teaching hospitals.

Knoll recommends physicians create their own online presence with information patients are interested in. 

“The only way to combat misinformation is to provide good information,” Knoll said.

Kim has also created patient videos about different procedures he performs.

Google has set out to make symptom searches more reliable through its partnership with the Mayo Clinic, said Millenson, author of Demanding Medical Excellence: Doctors and Accountability in the Information Age. “However, that effort doesn’t say anything about the company’s artificial intelligence capabilities.”

Google searching by medical professionals

Patients are not the only ones searching on Google. Physicians may search for an illustration to show a patient or to find dosages for a rarely prescribed drug. However, many physicians and hospitals sign up for information services designed for professionals, such as Medscape or UpToDate.

“Google can be very helpful for us,” Kim said. “Google Scholar is comprehensive.”

Google Scholar, which allows clinicians to search scholarly literature across many disciplines and sources, has proven helpful in academic settings, since it is easier to use than Pubmed, Millenson said.

Online ratings of medical practitioners

Google has also empowered consumers to easily find ratings of people they do business with, whether a restaurant or a physician. A survey found 88 percent of patients will go online to read reviews about a provider to whom they have been referred. 

“It’s there whether you like it or not,” Knoll said. “I encourage doctors to create their own internet and social media presence.”

In some states, such as Florida, healthcare consumers can also access the licensing board to check for disciplinary measures.

Google Translate

Some physicians, including Kim, are using Google Translate to communicate with patients who do not speak English.

Knoll, however, recommends using professional interpreters, saying, “It’s just too risky.”

The Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine considers Google Translate an unsafe method of medical communication, which could compromise patient safety.  

Google in medicine: Bold next steps

Although searches will remain a key part of how Google is influencing medicine, Alphabet’s forays into healthcare are expected to go far beyond that and will likely change medical practice.  

For instance, David Feinberg, MD, the head of Google Health, expressed in a Google blog that artificial intelligence will power new tools to “improve many facets of healthcare: delivery, access, and so much more.” 

Google researchers have developed AI systems that can detect breast, skin and lung cancers and to predict acute kidney injuries in patients more quickly than currently diagnosed.

“When it comes to reading an X-ray or something of that nature, the way to train AI is pretty clear, but when it comes to activities that require more judgment, like making a diagnosis, it is much more difficult,” Millenson said.

Google has applied for a patent for its own electronic health record, which will be able to predict medical events based on data entered into the record.  

The company also has a deal to purchase the fitness tracker Fitbit, which will give it access to more data.

Google partnerships in medicine

Mayo Clinic and Google have entered into a 10-year agreement, with the tech company opening an office in Rochester, Minnesota, to be geographically close to the health system as Mayo uses advanced cloud computing, data analytics, machine learning and AI to solve complex healthcare problems. The partnership blends clinical expertise with a leader in digital technology.

The health system states the partnership will “redefine how health care is delivered and accelerate the pace of healthcare innovation through digital technologies.” Google will store Mayo’s medical records.

Ascension in St Louis, another nonprofit health system, has started working with Google to streamline consumer engagement, enhance the caregiver experience and improve efficiency in technology operations. Ascension data will be stored on Google Cloud, which will support interdisciplinary care and the ability to search. Additionally the team will explore artificial intelligence applications.

Such alliances have sparked privacy concerns, but the players say the work adheres to industry privacy regulations.

“We will always need doctors,” Knoll concluded. “Using technology, such as artificial intelligence, may make us more effective, but it’s never going to preclude the need for physicians.”


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