April 05, 2021 at 11:56PM

Remember the old days, when the first thing you did when you had a medical issue was to call your local doctor? Thanks to its omnipresent search engine, Dr. Google has now taken over that role, with a full 70 percent of people conducting a Google search before heading to the emergency room for treatment. That’s according to an interview with the head of Google Health, Dr. David Feinberg, earlier this month. “We are where people start their healthcare journey,” Feinberg said. “And we’re open 24/7.”

Google is continuing to enhance the kind of information and assistance people can get through the internet. For example, the company launched an online COVID-19 self-assessment during the pandemic and has more recently released a self-assessment for postpartum depression.

While it’s true that Google might be at the start of healthcare queries for millions, the company certainly sees itself as more than just that initial portal. For example, just last week, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) announced that it would help to pilot Google’s Care Studio, “a technology designed to offer clinicians a longitudinal view of patient records and the ability to quickly search through those records through a single secure tool,” according to a press release.

The platform aggregates patient information into one streamlined system searchable by medical professionals. It will combine data from BIDMC’s own medical record system, along with other inputs including digital notes, scanned documents and handwritten notes, filling a current void for such a unifying system.

Fifty doctors and nurses will participate in the pilot at BIDMC, while testing will remain ongoing at the St. Louis-based Ascension healthcare system, where the program was initially developed. As part of that phase of the testing, 250 clinicians will pilot the program. While some groups have raised concerns about privacy issues, both the medical systems and Google say that the new platform is completely HIPAA-compliant.

“At this point, I’d still call it a pilot, but we have live patient data with doctors, and we think — likely — we’ll be able to improve care for people,” Feinberg told Forbes. “They won’t get tests they’ve already had because the doc couldn’t find it. They won’t get asked questions they’ve been asked 100 times because that information will be available. We hope it’ll lead not only to better quality care, but more time with your doctor.”

An Eye on AI

Another way in which Google is stepping into the healthcare arena is through several initiatives involving artificial intelligence (AI). In both India and Thailand, the company is testing an automated system that can read retinal scans and identify which patients are suffering from diabetic retinopathy, a condition that causes lesions in the back of the retina that can lead to blindness. Google said it plans to deploy the solution to Europe next.

The company is also applying AI to cancer detection, and is working with the Mayo Clinic on a project aimed at improving radiotherapy treatment for cancer patients by helping distinguish healthy tissue and organs from tumors. Additionally, it’s applying deep learning to identify skin, hair and nail disease. In tests, that system was able to provide results across 26 skin conditions on par with examinations by dermatologists.

“The success of deep learning to inform the differential diagnosis of skin disease is highly encouraging of such a tool’s potential to assist clinicians,” said the company about the latter development. “For example, such a DLS could help triage cases to guide prioritization for clinical care, or could help non-dermatologists initiate dermatologic care more accurately and potentially improve access. Though significant work remains, we are excited for future efforts in examining the usefulness of such a system for clinicians.”

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