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Thursday, 23 October 2014

From Doctor Who to Doctor Google...

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News of Google testing a "talk with a doctor now" (over video!) feature, as part of its Google Helpouts offering has been creating some waves over the past few days. You can watch a nice short video and read more about the story at Mashable and elsewhere, but what does it really mean about Google users/patients, physicians and pharma/healthcare companies?

Google users search for pretty much everything these days; and Google collects tons of data about our search habits, what we like and don't like, all helping the company behind the search engine to form an idea about who we (its users) are. And since people invariably search the net for information on medical conditions themselves or friends/relatives might have or for treatment options for pretty much any disease nowadays, it should come as no surprise that Google is in a position to test out a "talk to doctor" offering.

But to what end? Google Helpouts is a clever idea and quite helpful if used properly, but it is a different thing to seek a good music teacher to help you improve your piano skills vs. a doctor who can advise you on your anticoagulation treatment...

One could argue that for some consultations, videoconferencing is good enough, perhaps to just give an initial opinion and some advice (which will pretty much always include a suggestion to visit a healthcare profession in person). The counter argument would be that nothing can really replace a face-to-face visit to your GP. Well, perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but this is not really what the big opportunity is with this development by Google.

Assuming that this pilot by Google goes well and the company rolls out the feature with adequate support, physicians and patients have another very easy way to connect and communicate. Disregarding logistics (service registration and consultation costs for example), patients can get (some) authorised advice and perhaps be followed up online (if possible) after a face-to-face consultation. Physicians can expand their patient base, probably making more money at the same time, and gaining more visibility. Again, this will differ country by country due to regulatory restrictions but you get the idea.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity here, whether Google or another company introduces such a feature at such a wide scale, is for pharma and healthcare companies. Online interactions between pharma and patients have the potential to shape the early stages of a patient-centric relationship. Currently, phone helplines and online chat services exist as part of patient assistance schemes, often complemented by in-person interactions with nurses etc. But these patients are already on the company's drug. New "prospective" patients will look at a drug's website and gather information there...but what if someone who searches through Google (or another search engine) has the option to speak to a doctor, nurse or even an expert on a specific drug, before they reach the drug's website? 

These are all patient touchpoints that a pharma company can influence / control to a certain extent, and this is happening anyway offline. Pharma companies attempt to influence physicians to prescribe more of their drugs, train nurses to cater for patients on their drugs and be able to give good advice and also use expert scientists / physicians as consultants and advocates. The "talk to doctor" service by Google, if expanded, gives an easier way for the above to reach patients and for the pharma companies to reach patients through them. It would not be unthinkable if pharma companies would jump on this and offer the opportunity to a prospective "customer" to chat with them directly, through a regulated (of course!) service a search engine is providing, rather than via an email or info request form from their websites.

To finish off, it is still early days to decide whether such a service (yet to be tested, validated and above all, regulated) will be successful or not, or even useful. However, this could be a hint of things to come and definitely worth monitoring. After all, patient-centricity is here to stay and so is Google...

Let us know your thoughts below

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