In November Google made the controversial decision to absorb DeepMind Health, a healthcare subsidiary the company acquired in 2014, into the main arm of its organization. Though it’s still unclear whether this will give Google access to patient records (DeepMind has made deals with Britain’s National Health Service in order to help doctors monitor kidney patients), what is clear is that Google has major healthcare aspirations.
The good, the bad, and the privacy implications
There’s a lot to like about the (still extremely remote) possibility of Google being able to collate and analyze all the world’s healthcare data. Currently medical data is siloed and this makes it hard to identify trends or detect outbreaks with any reliability.
Of course, on the other side of this debate, the privacy implications would be disastrous. There is already growing concern that Google has amassed staggering amounts of user data with little oversight of how that data ultimately gets used, even if it never leaves Google’s servers.
The new CEO of Google Health, David Feinberg, hasn’t made his ultimate intentions known, but the very fact that Google Health exists signals Google’s ambitions to get into the healthcare space. Some of DeepMind’s projects are pretty compelling : one service uses AI to scan for eye disease, and DeepMind’s Streams app helps doctors monitor patients by providing a dashboard for patient records. The scaling of Streams is being highlighted by Google as one of the main reasons for the restructure.
The use of AI and apps like Streams could improve patient outcomes, but Google already holds an astonishing amount of personal data on users such as location, personal preferences, and — most embarrassingly — all your Google searches.
Why is a search engine company getting into health?
Some may not see the connection between Google’s healthcare bid and its long history as a search engine. But there are a few reasons why this move makes perfect sense.
First of all, Google’s original mission was “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Google has arguably done a pretty good job of this mission, developing ever-evolving algorithms that help users easily find what they’re looking for on the internet. In fact, it’s hard to imagine trying to use the internet without Google.
If Google somehow managed to organize the world’s medical information and make it useful and accessible, healthcare would change. Researchers would be able to identify patterns and if this information was combined with Google’s user data, the insights would likely be game-changing. However, these advancements would likely come at the cost of our privacy, and a company holding that much information on citizens is uncharted territory, and probably just generally a bad idea.
The second reason that Google’s healthcare bid isn’t as random as it seems is that we already give Google scads of medical information and (mis)use it as an on call doctor. Type in “am I” into the search bar in Google and just watch what happens:
We use Google search to diagnose conditions we suspect we have but would never tell our doctors about. Yes, that’s right: in some ways, Google already knows more about our health than our doctors do.
Google has also run into trouble when patients have used it as a referral service for treatment centers and other services that doctors really should be directing patients to. A recent example of this is its (involuntary) involvement in the Southern California rehab industry. As a result of patients being referred to unethical treatment centers with massive marketing budgets when they searched for help on Google, all Google Ads for rehab-related terms were banned. “ Google is the No. 1 referrer of addiction treatment in America – not health professionals ,” Greg Williams, executive vice president of the nonprofit Facing Addiction points out. “And with great power comes great responsibility.”
This incident might have made it clear that Google has a lot of work to do in order to prevent scammers from gaming search terms. But it also shows that, whether we like it or not, Google is already deeply involved in healthcare.
Should I be worried?
In a word, yes. But it will likely be a long time before Google gets its hands on your medical records. What we should all be worried about is our tendency to use Google as a medical diagnostic service, and, more generally, the massive amount of our personal information that technology giants hold.