This month, Google announced Helpouts, a video service that puts you face-to-face with an expert anywhere in the world.
People have already envisioned all kinds of potential uses for this new tool, which is still in beta. Just imagine getting advice about a new recipe in seconds from a professional chef, or receiving a video consultation from a makeup artist.
But Google has an even bigger vision for Helpouts: to bring affordable health care to patients.
This may seem like a bit of a stretch, but the search giant has been tentatively moving into health care for years. A few recent examples include the ill-fated Google Health product, and its support for developers building medical applications for Google Glass.
In fact, it appears that the Helpouts team built the technology with the health industry in mind. The video service is fully HIPAA-compliant, meaning that clinical care providers can use Helpouts and feel confident that sensitive patient information will not be compromised. It isn’t a cheap or quick proposition to overcome regulatory hurdles — Google would not have dedicated the legal resources unless it intended to focus on serving patients.
And Google has already cherry-picked a handful of health providers who are willing to test out the service with patients. Most of these early users are individual care providers: You can sign up for a counseling session for $2 a minute, or a weight loss consultation with a nutritionist.
However, Google is promoting one service in particular, which may be its most ambitious partnership yet.
One Medical: A perfect test bed
“We are learning with Google — [and] it’s been so far, so good,” said Tom Lee, MD, chief executive of the One Medical Group.
One Medical, which is featured at the top of the health category in Google Helpouts, is a network of dozens of clinics, and hundreds of doctors. One Medical patients can request a Helpout, and typically speak with a physician within 20 minutes. It’s recommended for people with cold and flu symptoms, rashes, or simple infections.
Full disclosure: I have been a patient of One Medical since 2011.
Dr. Lee was among the first health entrepreneurs to hear from Google. The Helpouts team asked him to trial the service with patients and report back. The goal is to offer patients the option to video chat with their doctor for a fee of $0 – 60 per session. It’s still early days, so the exact pricing for a video consultation is under discussion.
One Medical Group is an obvious choice for Google, as it already offers patients the opportunity to chat with a doctor on the phone or instant message — Dr. Lee calls it “telemedicine without the picture.” The firm also received investment from Google Ventures, Google’s early-stage investment arm.
The Google Helpouts pilot program is already looking promising.
Dr. Lee expects that a portion of One Medical patients (most likely, the young, professional, urban dwellers) won’t need to make a physical visit to the doctor’s office for a consultation in the future.
Riding the telehealth trend
This isn’t the first time that patients have been able to converse with a doctor online.
Telemedicine or “telehealth” vendors have been selling their secure video technology to care providers for years. Giants like Cisco and IBM have research and development teams dedicated to the emerging trend. We’ve also seen the emergence of startups like Breakthrough and Regroup Therapy, which specialize in connecting people with therapists and psychiatrists for video sessions.
But whenever Google gets involved, any niche or emerging technology is guaranteed a huge audience. The notion that you can video chat with a doctor or therapist may soon become the norm — not a bonus feature.
These video services aren’t intended to replace physical visits entirely. But they are an option for patients living in remote areas, or people who have a niggling or urgent question. We’ve all experienced situations where a physical doctor’s visit isn’t really necessary.
Telehealth and the policy horizon
The timing for Google Helpouts is unlikely to be a happy accident. With the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, telemedicine is a huge concern for policymakers in our nation’s capital.
“I see health delivery relying on many different methods for individuals to consume care,” said Lauren Fifield, a senior policy strategist at Practice Fusion, who divides her time between San Francisco and D.C.
“Telemedicine is a hot topic on the Hill and is supported by both sides of the aisle,” she said, meaning both Democrats and Republicans have latched onto telemedicine as a means to drive down costs. In the month of July alone, bills were introduced in New Jersey, Washington D.C., Kentucky, and Missouri to expand telehealth coverage for patients.
“This is a big year on the policy horizon for reimbursement of telehealth services,” Fifield added.
That said, telemedicine certainly has its skeptics, who may be a vocal minority. Many doctors don’t believe patients would feel comfortable sharing sensitive details on a video platform. Also, one might argue that it’s far too easy to miss a symptom on a video call — it’s easier to detect a subtle tremor or blemish in person.
However, remote video monitoring tools and devices have already proven invaluable for doctors, who use them to keep abreast of the daily condition of their most chronically ill patients or of women with high-risk pregnancies. The University of Virginia Center for Telehealth recently reported that it reduced preterm deliveries during high-risk pregnancies by 25 percent using telemedical services.
For Dr. Lee, telehealth is one potential means to lower the cost of health care. “Helpouts will allow our patients to get high quality affordable care,” he said. “The system is so wasteful.”