Internet search is generating massive amounts of consumer data — how is the medical industry going to use it?
You can’t really understate the significance of Google’s impact on healthcare. For one thing, the search engine giant has effectively become the largest medical startup incubator in history. In the last few years alone, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Google Ventures (its investment arm) have respectively acquired or backed an expansive list of healthcare companies and ventures.
This list includes Verily, which is developing AI-driven tech that analyzes vast troves of consumer data to better understand how and why we get sick, as well as DeepMind Health, which is using AI in apps to help medical professionals deliver safer, higher-quality care to patients.
But on a more fundamental level, the rise of internet search, which of course is dominated by Google, has resulted in a massive trove of consumer data that is incredibly valuable from a healthcare perspective. Here are three of the most interesting ways that researchers, providers, and others in the field are using Google’s search data to improve the overall quality of medical care across the globe.
1. Predicting Epidemic Outbreaks
Over the past 10 to 15 years, more and more consumers have come to rely on the internet as their first point of reference (i.e., before reaching out to a doctor) when stricken ill. As this trend began to take off, scientists and researchers realized they could actually leverage this data to predict outbreaks of infectious diseases like influenza, dengue fever, cholera, etc.
Back in 2008, early tests of a search algorithm for influenza was able to accurately predict incidence about two weeks ahead of the CDC’s regional reports. This led to the development of Google Flu Trends and Google Dengue Trends, which, unfortunately, didn’t pan out to have the same level of accuracy and impact. In fact, during peak flu season in 2013, Google Flu Trends missed the mark by more than 140%.
While the initial attempts may not have panned out, experts point out that the potential is certainly still there — we just need to gain a deeper understanding into the nuances of consumer search, and develop better algorithms to get the job done right. It seems that Google hasn’t given up the fight either; although it discontinued both of its platforms back in 2015, the company said that it would instead refocus its efforts to “empower institutions who specialize in infectious disease research to use the data to build their own models.”
2. Diagnosing Diseases
There was a really interesting article in the New York Times last summer about researchers analyzing online search queries in order to identify patients suffering from pancreatic cancer before they were actually given a diagnosis.
Scientists at Microsoft conducted a study in which they identified Bing search queries (ok, this example isn’t Google, but it’s still relevant!) of anonymized users that indicated they’d been diagnosed with the condition, then worked backwards to see what their earlier searches looked like. Using this method, researchers were able to identify “5% to 15% of pancreatic cases with false positive rates of as low as one in 100,000." Keep in mind that early screening for pancreatic cancer can increase five-year survival rates from 3% to as high as 7%.
While it’s still early days for these kinds of technologies/tactics, the implications are clearly huge. It’s not hard to imagine a Cortana, Siri, Alexa, or Google-powered early warning system that can recommend patients contact a specialist immediately based on their search queries, provided patients — and the medical community at large — are willing to get on board.
3. Easier Access to Care
Being a patient in the digital age can be difficult. You go online to find information about a specific condition or treatment, and what you get in return is a veritable tidal wave of irrelevant, unhelpful, and/or untrustworthy information.
Google AdWords represents a massive step in the right direction for patients and medical organizations alike. As Google’s data analytics and targeting capabilities continue to improve, the result for patients a more personalized, fruitful online search experience. By building campaigns based on keyword phrases that are aligned with specific services lines or an area of expertise, hospitals and medical practices can get highly relevant information and treatment options in front of the patients who need them the most, as quickly and efficiently as possible.
At the end of the day, the internet search phenomenon is generating massive amounts of incredibly useful data. We as an industry need to figure out every possible way in which we can leverage said data in order maximize the overall quality of care we’re delivering to patients across the globe. We’re certainly on the right track, but this is only the tip of the iceberg — I can’t wait to see what happens next.