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In 2020, Google reminded the world of its effectiveness as a healthcare company. Google acted quickly to help people and organizations manage the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as Google itself needed to operate at a reduced capacity. For example, the company developed the COVID-19 National Response Portal, an open data platform to help communities respond to the pandemic, among many other initiatives.

Google’s response to the pandemic is a microcosm of how the company intends to lead the entire healthcare industry: helping people stay as healthy as possible through wellness care and managing the journey to receive care when needed.

To do that, Google is building a data platform connected to devices.

Managing wellness

The first part of Google’s strategy consists of helping people stay healthy through wellness care. This approach is both purposeful and sensible. As our population ages, receiving healthcare is increasingly expensive – healthcare bills are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy. Helping people manage personal fitness is an important way to stay away from the hospital. And wellness is a $4 trillion industry. Google wants a piece of that.

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Google, like Apple, has an advantage in personal healthcare: a data platform tied to devices. For instance, Google Fit is a health-tracking platform for Android, similar to Wear OS and Apple Inc.’s iOS. It is a single set of APIs that blends data from multiple apps and devices. With Google Fit, you can connect any Android-enabled device such as a Garmin Watch, to collect health information in one place.

Hardware, though, is the key to Google’s foray into health. Devices, ranging from Chromebooks to Pixel phones to home devices, provide the means for Google users to manage their data and for Google to monetize it.

Meta, by contrast, lacks a hardware device and finds itself beholden to Google and Apple because of it. Devices will power Google’s future in healthcare, and I believe Google will press its advantage and acquire another device manufacturer as it did many months ago with Fitbit. Because when you own the devices and the hardware, you can gather even more information and monetize it.

Getting healthcare

The second part of Google’s healthcare strategy is to own the patient journey to getting care. And here, Google is the undisputed Big Tech leader. The company has positioned itself as the default resource for people to research symptoms and access care. Google influences every phase of the patient journey, from awareness to consideration. According to research conducted by YouGov and Reputation, Google is the most popular source for searching for a physician or hospital – more popular than provider/physician websites, healthcare-specific sites such as WebMD and Healthgrades, or social media. Google is also the #1 review site used by healthcare consumers.

This is no accident. Google continues to make improvements that make Google Search more valuable for care seekers, evident in the following recent announcements:  

  • That it can now show searchers which health insurance networks the provider might accept. Searchers can also filter providers nearby who accept Medicare. These developments are huge. Our own research shows that insurance acceptance is the most important attribute when people evaluate a physician or provider.
  • An option for healthcare professionals to let prospective patients know what languages are spoken at their office. Google currently has more than a dozen languages represented, including Spanish and American Sign Language.
  • A feature that shows the appointment availability for healthcare providers so that care seekers can more easily book an appointment. So, if someone is searching for, say, “spine specialists near me,” they’ll find not only names of relevant physicians but also available appointment dates and times for doctors in their area. A “book” button will direct them to a third-party site to make an appointment. This appears to be an extension of the Reserve with Google program that has been available for the past five years. The initial rollout appears to be limited to locations like urgent care clinics and is not a provider scheduler, but that could change in the future. The company is also working with MinuteClinic at CVS and other unnamed appointment schedulers.

Although Google owns the search for care, it has online care competition. Amazon and virtual care provider Teladoc recently announced that they are making it possible for patients to ask for doctors using Amazon Alexa’s voice assistant. Through a voice-activated virtual care program, patients can get non-emergency medical help by telling Alexa (via an Amazon Echo device) that they want to see a doctor. A Teladoc physician will call them back.

Amazon is likely getting more involved in direct medical care and prescription drug services through the Alexa-enabled Echo speaker, which commands the biggest share of the smart speaker market. Such a move would capitalize on Amazon’s strengths of providing efficient service cost-effectively, supported by Amazon Web Services as the cloud backbone.

What’s next

To strengthen its own role in healthcare, I expect Google to:

  • Respond to Amazon by leaning into Google Assistant (Google’s own voice assistant) to help people manage healthcare via telehealth. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, telehealth services skyrocketed. In April 2020, the number of virtual visits was 78 times higher than two months earlier, accounting for nearly one-third of outpatient visits. After that, telehealth usage tapered off.  Even so, throughout 2021, telehealth usage had increased 38 times from the pre-pandemic baseline, according to McKinsey. Google has the pieces in place through Reserve with Google – a voice-first experience is a natural evolution.
  • Connect patients to physicians more effectively through Google Business Profiles. Google Business Profiles are becoming increasingly important for providers and physicians. They are the most important way for any business to be found in local search. And 65% of organic searches result in a conversion right in the Google experience — without ever visiting a website. Google will provide more tools for providers and physicians to make their Profiles function like second websites. Those tools include chat, scheduling and ratings/reviews. Google Business Profiles will become the center of the patient experience – if Google has its way.

From wellness care to finding care, Google intends to find more ways to keep people living in Google’s universe. Google will benefit by attracting more advertisers (because engagement and volume are like gold to online advertisers). And digital health will benefit, too.

Adam Dorfman is Head of Product Growth at Reputation.

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