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Google launches Telemedicine platform

Google has recently launched an online service where users can obtain advice about medical issues from qualified doctors. Duncan Wallace investigates. 

Google is currently running a temporary trial of a new Google Hangouts feature that provides a popup asking people, who are searching for medical advice on Google, whether they wish to also connect with a physician for an online consultation. This feature represents Google’s fresh bid to venture into telemedicine, following their failure to excite interest in their data collaboration system, Google Health, back in 2008.

Telemedicine, or the use of telecommunications technologies to deliver health-related services and information, is nothing new. In particular, asynchronous communication (such as sending MRI scan images by email) has become increasingly common. In Ireland, in 2007, a comprehensive survey conducted by Craig et al of Trinity College Dublin found that some 25% of Irish hospitals engaged in telemedicine, with the majority actively using teleradiology. Today, institutions such as Tallaght Hospital promote Virtual Reality Outpatients, a Skype based consultancy tool.

However, most current telemedicine ventures are in place to enhance established services, and to work in conjunction with brick-and-mortar hospitals and clinics. As such, most telemedicine occurs “behind the scenes”; and in the rare instances that patients are presented with an opportunity to engage with it, the service is presented in the context of communicating with individuals, or institutions, that the patient has had an existing and persistent relationship with. Even Google Health, which wound up in 2011, was designed to merely augment users’ local healthcare through the creation of a permanent personal health record in the cloud. It was the lack of tangible return for the creation of such a personal record, combined with the latent fears that putting such sensitive information into the cloud presents, which doomed Google Health to the obscurity of being used almost exclusively by Google employees.

The Health section of Google Hangouts, or Google Helpouts as it is being branded (Google Hangouts, but HIPAA compliant) forms a different role. Ostensibly at least, rather than an extension of a patient’s ongoing treatment or care, Helpouts is designed more as a support for users who are attempting to find answers online.

Google Helpouts is a recent addition to the Google franchise, having been established only in 2013 as an amalgamation of multiple former Google projects, but already covers a wide range of subjects from fitness to programming. Users of Helpouts, through their Google accounts, are able to connect by video call and instant messaging to experts or peers in their field of interest. While some of this collaboration is free, the majority of Helpouts is pay-per-use, making much of the system a form of online private tuition. While Google’s Health based Helpouts is going to be free during its trial period in the US, it too will feature a transaction fee from the New Year.

But while Helpouts is implicitly designed as an alternative to searching, (whereby users pose their questions to a human instead of a search engine) in reality it is likely to form a role which will, to a certain extent, compete with local health services. Although Helpouts will not have the capacity in its current form to provide either prescriptions or referrals, it may nonetheless reduce potential business for general practitioners. Would-be patients may find that no follow-up action is required on the foot of their Helpouts consultation, and therefore avoid contacting their GP. Of course, the system has the potential to conversely generate new patients, hitherto reluctant to visit their doctor, who become motivated to do so based on the feedback from such consultation.

Whether the public will ultimately prefer, or shun, the relative anonymity provided through such a facility as Helpouts, or whether security concerns or lack of consumer confidence will spell its failure, is yet to be seen. Telemedicine has almost certainly got a strong future ahead of itself – the only question is whether, and to what extent, this future is shaped by ventures such as that pursued by Google.