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Google puts doctors on call, experiments with telemedicine in Search

Google is testing a new feature in search that allows users to video chat with physicians after searching for symptoms, and it could have major implications for the medical industry.

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Image: iStockphoto/Anatoliy Babiy

To some degree, the internet has turned us all into hypochondriacs. Infinite access to symptom lists can help identify potentially dangerous situations, but it can also lead to hysteria and consistent misdiagnosis.

Now, it seems that Google is trying to lessen the gap between self-diagnosis and a visit to the doctor. A screenshot posted by Reddit user jasonahoule shows a mobile search for the term "knee pain" and a clickable link that takes users into a video chat with a medical doctor. Under the information icon, it reads:

"Based on your search query, we think you are trying to understand a medical condition. Here you can find healthcare providers who you can visit with over video chat. All visit costs are covered by Google during this limited trial."

Google confirmed the feature over email, and also confirmed that the service is HIPAA compliant. The feature developed out of a partnership that Google has with Scripps Health and One Medical.

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Image: jasonahoule/Reddit
The trial version of the feature is powered by Helpouts, Google's service to connect users to experts via video chat. The goal is to help users searching for specific symptoms, like shoulder pain or inflammation, get connected with a medical professional.

Google is exploring if on-demand access to these professionals could help users get more out of their search experience.

"When you're searching for basic health information — from conditions like insomnia or food poisoning — our goal is provide you with the most helpful information available," a Google spokesperson said. "We're trying this new feature to see if it's useful to people."

Based on the language used in the information section, it's safe to assume the service will cost money if it is ever made available to the general public. If it ends up following the Helpouts model, the service will only be payable with Google Wallet.

According to the Helpouts website, the service allows users to select an expert based on "qualifications, availability, ratings, and reviews." This could very easily translate to the way users choose a medical professional to chat with as well.

Telemedicine, or telehealth, is an emerging trend throughout the medical field that comprises many different activities. This Google feature speaks to the idea of remote interactive care. According to a Forrester research report, growth in remote interactive care will be driven by "large brand-name service providers."

The report focuses specifically on healthcare providers, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out with a technology company such as Google acting as a vendor for telemedicine services. However, according to Mayo Clinic neurologist Bert Vargas, the effectiveness of the search engine aspect depends on the user.

"When you put items into a search engine, it's subject to the limitations of the person who is entering the information," Vargas said. "In many cases, you have people who may not quite identify particular symptoms as symptoms."

For example, Vargas works primarily with concussion patients. He said there are emotional and psychological symptoms, such as PTSD or anxiety, that can easily be overlooked. Users might not put these symptoms into a search engine, and that might change who they are paired with.

One of the big discussions around telemedicine, in general, is whether or not it is as effective as a face-to-face interaction. Vargas said that when you are evaluating someone in an emergent setting, you actually miss very little because you are dealing with large problems. For non-emergent problems, especially in neurology, there are things that are easier to miss in a virtual situation (e.g. motor skills and strength, muscle tone, reflexes), but he believes it is still better than nothing.

Google has been making major plays at health recently. Google's "Baseline Study" seeks to better understand the human body through collecting genetic material. Calico, Google's company that is hoping to extend the human lifespan, just announced a partnership that could lead to up to $1.5 billion in research investments. Also, Google's partnership with Novartis to make a smart contact lens that checks blood sugar.

The bottom line, and this feature corroborates it, is that Google is serious about healthcare. The question is how, exactly, this will play out over the next few years. Vargas is optimistic that Google can put together an innovative telemedicine program.

"I think that Google seems like a natural player in the delivery of healthcare," Vargas said.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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