Google has grown from a search engine into a technology giant. Now, it’s pursuing high-tech innovations in medicine that could change the future of healthcare.
Growing out of a search algorithm developed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, when they were graduate students at Stanford University, the groundbreaking Google company was officially launched in 1998. The rest is internet history. Google was soon the most widely used web-based search engine on the planet, and “Googling” has become part of our language.
Now, Google is aiming to play a role in another part of everyone’s life — health. The technology giant is moving into high-tech areas of medicine and health in ways that can change the future of healthcare.
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What is Google Health?
In November 2019, Google created a division, Google Health, to bring together multiple teams who had been working separately on various health communication and technology projects for the company.
According to David Feinberg, MD, who heads Google Health, the mission of the division is to “help everybody live their healthiest life.” It’s a simple statement but the goal — to potentially help billions of people have better and healthier lives — is enormous.
Google’s health connection isn’t new. Google has been linked to health information and aspects of healthcare through the Google search engine since the beginning of the company, according to Feinberg. For example, The app Google Maps has longed helped people find their nearest hospital or doctor’s office, he points out. And people from all over the world who are looking for answers to health questions use Google’s search engine countless times a day.
But Google has expanded into whole new arenas that can impact health. It’s working on ways to simplify how healthcare is administered (using technology to make healthcare faster and better, with less tedious record keeping work for doctors), and developing products and research initiatives to diagnose many health conditions quickly.
It’s also working on ways to help people get medical help more easily. A case in point: When COVID-19 (coronavirus) became a pandemic, healthcare was suddenly changed. Many doctors reduced or halted in-person visits for chronic conditions that were not immediately life threatening. And most stopped office visits for evaluating symptoms of likely minor ills, such as sore throats and colds or upset stomachs.
That doesn’t mean people could not, or should not, seek medical advice and care for non-critical reasons. The result has been an increased interest and need for telehealth and video conferences with doctors. So, Google Health has created new features in Google Search and Maps to help people connect to virtual healthcare options.
Google Cloud is a multi-faceted healthcare and life sciences arm of Google Health, offering a wide range of medical-related services, including apps enabling patients to connect easily and quickly with their healthcare providers. It’s also partnering with scientists at universities and other organizations on numerous medical research projects.
What Google is doing in healthcare even involves a search for increased longevity. A Google-backed life-extension company, Calico, is researching ways to combat aging and age-associated disease, using technologies to potentially extend the human life-span.
Google and the AI health connection
Cutting edge technologies, especially artificial intelligence (AI, also called machine learning), play an important role in all of areas of Google Health.
AI is a branch of computer science that uses technology and automated processes to gather, process, and analyze information far faster than humans can. That makes AI integral to improving search engines for the public, as well as for doctors, who are looking for fast, precise, and correct information.
Because AI is an incredibly fast way to gather and analyze data from multiple sources, it can help improve healthcare with quicker diagnoses and treatment plans. It’s also accelerating research into finding the causes and treatment for diseases.
For instance, the American Cancer Society is using Google’s Cloud to advance and accelerate understanding about breast cancer and treatments. According to Mia M. Gaudet, PhD, scientific director of epidemiology research at the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is not just one disease. And Google’s Cloud AI platform is allowing researchers to find underlying patterns within breast tissues to decipher how breast malignancies differ, the best treatments for types of breast cancer, and how likely different breast cancers are to have different outcomes.
“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 Gaudet. Without Cloud, the same research would have taken many years, she pointed out.
Googling accurate health info is important
No doubt you’ve Googled some symptoms of a potential health problem. According to a report in CNBC, Feinberg has expressed concern about what is often referred to as “Dr. Google” — people attempting to diagnose themselves by searching Google. Sometimes the advice is helpful and accurate and, other times, it be inaccurate or overly alarming, causing unnecessary worry. It may even tout bogus or unproven treatments.
In a speech at a conference for healthcare professionals in Las Vegas, Feinberg noted Google Health is targeting new approaches to help the public and doctors find and use credible, fact-based health information quickly, both on Google search and YouTube (which is owned by Google).
Google Health is working on specific ways AI-powered searches and related technology can help healthcare practitioners with quick, detailed information they need to help diagnose and treat patients, and to simplify documenting patient care.
“Imagine a search bar on top of your EHR (electronic health record) that needs no training,” Feinberg told the healthcare conference. As an example, he explained how a doctor or nurse could type into the search bar the information they need about how to best treat an 87-year old man with a history of stomach cancer. The search system would immediately provide fact-based, specific information on managing the patient’s case and auto-complete forms with billing codes and chart information and other data — saving physicians countless hours of additional work.
Feinberg also noted Google Health wants to improve the quality of content offered by YouTube specifically for doctors. The goal is to provide guidance, even for surgeries, that physicians can study use for immediate reference.
“Your doctors, before they operate on you, can actually go to YouTube and see the surgery,” Feinberg said. “We want to continue to build information to allow caregivers to take better care of patients, but that’s scratching the surface.”
Bottom line: What Google is doing in healthcare is impacting medicine
Here are some other areas of ongoing Google-backed medical research and diagnostic innovations:
Predicting lung cancer
Lung cancer has one of the worst survival rates for all malignancies, in large part because the majority of these cancers are not caught until later stages. Google Health researchers and scientists partnering with Google (including Northwestern University) 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 in previous scans to document the growth rate of suspicious lung nodules. The results, published in the journal Nature Medicine, are laying the groundwork for quick and potentially highly accurate lung screenings that could make extremely early lung cancer diagnoses and treatments possible.
Spotting diabetic retinopathy to prevent blindness
Diabetic retinopathy (DR) results from damage to the blood vessels in tissues at the back of the 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 DR is the fastest growing cause of blindness world-wide, it can be treated if caught early. Unfortunately, DR is often not spotted 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 this problem, Google researchers worked closely with doctors in the U.S. and India, using AI to create an automated screening for DR from retinal photographs. While more research is underway, the high-tech, quick analysis appears to be highly accurate and can help doctors know which patients need to see a specialist for early DR treatment.
Non-invasive screening for anemia
The eyes also have it when it comes to spotting anemia, a major public health problem affecting 1.6 billion people globally. Anemia results from an abnormally low level of red blood cells or dysfunctional red blood cells in the body. Red blood cells carry oxygen. So, when anemia occurs, oxygen flow to the body's organs is reduced, causing fatigue, weakness, dizziness, skin pallor, and shortness of breath. Pregnant women are at elevated risk, and the condition can be associated with other conditions. In fact, anemia can be an early sign of colon cancer in otherwise healthy people.
Anemia is usually discovered with a blood test that measures the level of hemoglobin. However, a Google Health research team, using AI, has found a simple, non-invasive screening — a photograph taken of the back of the eye — that accurately reveals anemia by spotting changes in the optic disc and surrounding tissue, according to Google Health research engineer Akinori Mitani, MD, PhD.
Using AI to improve breast cancer screening
About one in eight American women will develop breast cancer in their lives and, for now, mammography (digital X-ray imagining or breasts) is the most common screening test for the disease. However, even the most skilled experts sometimes have difficulty reading mammograms. The result can be false positives, leading to worry and sometimes unnecessary treatments, and occasional false negatives, resulting in delays in finding and treating some early breast cancers.
Google Health scientists, working with research partners in the UK, have found AI can spot breast cancer in screening mammograms with much better accuracy than radiologists alone. The findings, published in the journal Nature, could lead to far fewer false positive and false negative mammogram results in the future.
New tools to fight heart disease
Heart disease is the top killer of Americans, according to the American Heart Association. In fact, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death world-wide. Identifying people at risk, and developing ways to help people lower those risks, are keys to reducing those grim statistics — and what Google is doing in healthcare could play a role in doing just that. Scientists from Google and Verily Life Sciences (a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet) have discovered a way to assess your potential risk of heart disease using AI to analyze changes in the back of the eye linked to cardiovascular disease.
In addition, Google is helping fund University of Sydney researchers working to find ways AI can help prevent cardiovascular disease by identifying and encouraging people at high risk to develop a healthy lifestyle, including their diet and exercise. The researchers are also working on using mobile technology to connect people to health services quickly and digital tools to help doctors and other health professionals provide personalized advice about cardiovascular care via telemedicine, without the need to meet face to face.
May 18, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN