Google is betting its future on healthcare, but the company’s journey so far has been a bit bumpy.
In 2021, three years after its creation, Google spun off its healthcare division. The breakup came after group head David Feinberg left the company to become CEO of electronic health records company Cerner. Since then, Karen DeSalvo, a former Obama health official, has taken over and is managing staff spread across various Google teams.
Under her watch, Google has optimized search and YouTube to better answer common health questions, updated its consumer health devices to function more like medical devices, and build artificial intelligence products to meet industry requirements.
Sometimes the company is stuck. In the early days of the pandemic, Google tried to address Covid health misinformation on YouTube. Then, after overturning a Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade in 2022, the research found that Google Maps was directing abortion seekers to anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers.
Despite the missteps, Google is making a push in healthcare. DeSalvo spoke with Ruth at Google’s annual health event, controlabout the company’s plans.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is one of your biggest priorities for Google in healthcare?
I am very eager to see that this thing (she shows her Google phone) becomes a pocket doctor.
What are the things we can enable in self-care? And then, what are the things that can support the caregiver? It’s about: How do you access information, whether it’s on Search or YouTube, or access telehealth? So much will happen just from a device that is frankly quite cheap and in the hands of a large part of the planet.
People during the pandemic in America spoke loud and clear that they want more agency and control. People do not want to be so dependent on the medicine house to learn about their health.
Healthcare feels like a long-term play for Google. How big can it be?
It’s a long-term game for us. And the reason it’s an important use case is because [on search] people ask health questions. We have to get it right. And we must help them on their journey. In ours [wearables like Fitbit], people don’t just want to count steps. They want to make sure they are healthier.
The cloud is [becoming] a trillion dollar global industry. Thirty percent of the world’s data is healthcare.
In our ethos as Google is co-construction and partnership. [An organization] had a problem to solve. We had technical people who could think about it with them and sort it out. But then they can take it out and reduce it. And that these things last longer. But we are also going faster. We are learning how to do them more quickly. So it’s a long-term game in the sense that we’re going to be in it.
You’ve hired the FDA’s former head of digital health, Bakul Patel, and partnered with many global health institutions like the World Health Organization for artificial intelligence that can screen for conditions as diverse as tuberculosis or diabetic retinopathy. How regulation affects your strategy, not just in the US, but globally.
To get scale, we need to make sure we’re doing it somehow [so] that it is not just about approval. This opportunity that we created more formally with WHO during the pandemic has really helped us say, look, there is a backbone organization that can help us understand what the challenges are. Let’s not just make it a pandemic thing. Let’s figure out what we can do next.
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An emergency room in Florida wrongly accused a 4-year-old — not his parents — with a medical debt for care he never received. The hospital did not talk to the parents about the debt because the claim was in their son’s name and was sent to collections. When reporters came knocking, the health system decided to pay off the debt.
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Today in ours
Opioid use disorder medication treatment via telehealth helped significantly reduce overdoses during the pandemic, though not as much as in-person treatment in an office setting or a certified opioid treatment program, a study released today found. .
Major study by CDC, CMS and NIH researchers in JAMA Psychiatry concluded that between September 2019 and February 2021:
- Telehealth patients had a 33 percent lower adjusted odds of fatal overdose.
- Individual patients had a 38 percent lower chance of fatal overdose.
- Patients in certified opioid treatment programs had a 59 percent lower chance of fatal overdose.
- 1 in 5 Medicare beneficiaries in the pandemic group received OUD-related telehealth services.
- 1 in 8 beneficiaries received drug treatment.
The researchers said the findings underscored the need to expand interventions to clinical settings.
Why it matters: The findings are a victory for advocates of opioid treatment through telehealth; Federal agencies allowed more virtual care during the pandemic when Covid-19 made in-person visits dangerous.
The findings come as the Drug Enforcement Administration reviews public comments on a proposal that would make buprenorphine, a controlled substance used to treat opioid addiction, more difficult to access.
They also add to growing evidence that relaxed telehealth rules reduced overdoses amid the pandemic. However, a study in The JAMA Network opens in January found that telehealth may not expand access to treatment, potentially due to the digital divide. However, other researchhas suggested that ending telemedicine relief rules could disrupt access to care for some groups.
until most hospitals have begun to comply with price transparency rules, patients are still not benefiting. As a result, Congress is seeking advice on what to do next. On Tuesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a subcommittee hearing how to get hospitals to share meaningful service prices.
Price transparency rules aim to provide patients with price data for medical services so they can make comparisons, which should ultimately lower prices. But health systems are not reporting the data in a way that consumers can understand.
Recommendation no. 1? Applicable federal standards.
The witnesses — a mix of policy experts, health system operators and consumer technology companies — seemed to agree that to move forward with implementing the law, the government would need to add specific legal requirements for how hospitals should publish prices for medical services.
“We’re seeing hospitals do everything from not posting any price information to posting a price as a percentage of Medicare,” said witness Sophia Tripoli., head of Healthcare Innovation at patient advocacy group Families USA. “For example, 120 percent of Medicare, which is meaningless to consumers.”
They want hospitals and health systems to be required to:
- Post all prices in dollars and cents
- Use standardized descriptions of medical services so patients can easily compare them across health systems.
- Format their pricing data in a way that can be easily read by patients and aggregated by third-party comparison tools.
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