Google has grown from a search engine into a technology giant. Now, it’s also pursuing high-tech innovations in medicine. Here’s what you should know.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two Stanford University graduate students, developed the Google search engine. It quickly caught the attention of investors. The rest is internet history.
Google soon became the most widely used search engine on the planet, and “Googling” has become part of our language. It’s also become the owner of numerous technology companies. Billions of people across the globe use its products.
The company is also trying to play a bigger role in another part of everyone’s life — health.
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People already use Google to find answers to their health questions or the nearest emergency room. But the company wants to do much more. In 2018, it created a division, called Google Health, to combine teams working on health communication and technology projects. Today, those efforts continue but are no longer siloed in their own division.
The company still uses the phrase “Google Health” to describe its mission. The underlying link is information. As the company explains, Google Health aims to give people more personal data, help medical care teams and researchers coordinate their activities, and apply artificial intelligence (AI) to promote health, among several projects.
Some products and research initiatives may catch signs of illness quickly, for example, making smartphone data useful for heart disease risk screening. If you use the Google Fit app, you can measure your heart rate or respiratory rate and perhaps catch symptoms of a problem. Search and Maps also help people connect to virtual healthcare options.
“We were able to look at 1,700 cases with tissues samples, apply that to over 20 years of data, and do it all in three months’ time,” said Mia Gaudet, PhD, former scientific director of epidemiology research. Without Cloud, the same research would have taken many years, she pointed out.
Some research requires huge computing power, and a lack of equipment has stymied U.S. scientists. Although Google Cloud isn’t designed to work like a supercomputer, a heart disease researcher adapted it for that purpose.
A Google-backed bio-tech firm, Calico, conducts research about aging. Its emphasis on collaborating with other researchers depends on sophisticated information technology.
Google and the AI health connection
AI, also called machine learning, uses computer coding to analyze information and draw conclusions faster than humans can. That makes AI integral to improving search engines for the public, as well as for doctors, who also need precise, accurate information quickly.
Ideally, a search bar could be integrated with electronic health records and save physicians administrative time.
In theory, AI can also help speed diagnosis, accelerate research, and target care.
That promise may be closer than you think. For example, Google claims that its AI-based analysis to predict cancer risk from mammograms gets better results than radiologists.
In one survey, experts in breast, lung, and colon cancer agreed that AI could help improve cancer care. Most of the experts in each field reported problems with delays and false positives in normal testing that they hoped better technology could fix.
Googling accurate health info is important
No doubt you’ve Googled symptoms to help decide if you need to see a doctor or can safely try home remedies. But you still need to judge veracity of the information.
Google searches prioritize information because it’s popular, not because it’s correct. Just because someone has posted on Reddit doesn’t mean they’re any more reliable than someone at a bus stop.
When you scan your search results, look for high-quality sources:
- Major health organizations (such as the NIH and its PubMed website)
- Government agencies
- Peer-reviewed health and science journal websites
- Hospital websites
- Well-respected health websites and media organizations that document quality health sources
The information you find on a Google search may make you worry unnecessarily. You might be tempted by bogus, unproven treatments or dramatic headlines and overviews.
On the other hand, information can be lifesaving if you use it correctly.
Google and other companies are developing tools for the public. For example, you might be able to take a photo of a rash and get immediate insight about whether it’s a serious problem. Using computer vision AI and image search, your phone might one day help you identify many skin, hair, and nail problems.
How Google is impacting medicine
Here are some other areas of ongoing Google-backed medical research and diagnostic innovations.
Spotting kidney injuries earlier
In as many as one in five U.S. hospitalized patients, a kidney suddenly stops working properly. With early intervention, about a third of cases could be prevented, but the problem is difficult to spot.
A Google research team has worked with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to develop technology that could give doctors a 48-hour head start and save lives.
Predicting lung cancer
Lung cancer has one of the worst survival rates of all malignancies, in large part because most cases are not caught until later stages.
Google researchers and other scientists are using AI and advanced 3-D computerized models from CT lung scans to identify miniscule changes in lung tissue, impossible to spot with the human eye, that can predict a lung malignancy.
The high tech 3-D models can also factor in what the tissue looked like on previous scans to document the growth rate of suspicious lung nodules.
Spotting diabetic retinopathy to prevent blindness
Diabetic retinopathy results from damage to the blood vessels in tissues at the back of your eye (retina) and can lead to vision loss. Poorly controlled blood sugar in people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes is a risk factor.
Although diabetic retinopathy is the fastest growing cause of blindness worldwide, it can be treated if caught early.
But the condition is usually not diagnosed until significant eye damage has occurred, often because physicians who are able to detect the disease aren’t available in many areas in which diabetes is prevalent.
To solve the problem, Google researchers worked closely with doctors in the U.S. and India, using AI to create an automated screening from retinal photographs. The tool can also predict whether patients will develop the problem, helping doctors to target the patients who need frequent screenings.
Non-invasive screening for anemia
Your eyes can also reveal signs of anemia, a global public health problem affecting nearly 2 billion people. Anemia results from an abnormally low level of red blood cells or dysfunctional red blood cells in your body. Red blood cells carry oxygen.
When anemia occurs, oxygen flow to your organs is reduced, causing:
- Skin pallor
- Shortness of breath
Pregnant women are at elevated risk, and the condition can be associated with other conditions. It can even be an early sign of colon cancer in otherwise healthy people.
A blood test that measures your level of hemoglobin usually discovers the problem. Using AI, however, a Google Health research team, has found a simple, non-invasive screening — a photograph taken of the back of your eye — that accurately reveals anemia, spotting changes in the optic disc and surrounding tissue.
Using AI to improve breast cancer screening
About one in eight American women will develop breast cancer in their lives. Your best protection is regular mammograms. But even the most skilled experts make mistakes reading mammograms. About half of all women will experience a false positive over a decade, suffering through worry, more testing, and sometimes unnecessary treatments.
Tools to fight heart disease
In addition, Google is helping fund University of Sydney researchers studying how AI can improve their text messages for people at risk of heart disease. The texts recommend patients follow medical advice, such as reminding them to monitor their blood pressure.
Let’s say a patient came to an emergency room with chest pain. If he enrolled in a follow-up program that included a monitoring device, a digital tool might notice when he had an inactive day and send a reminder to go for a walk.
“We have the potential to help more people at risk of cardiovascular disease,” says heart disease researcher Clara Chow, MD, “by giving them high-quality prevention programs developed by clinicians and researchers, without requiring frequent clinic or hospital visits.”
November 08, 2023
Janet O’Dell, RN