Google gets into information and health

I’ve started using Google reader which, in case you don’t know about it, is a great way to read blogs. Joshua Gans told me about it pointing me to the link on his own blog which shares interesting links through Google Reader.

This took me to this link and thence to this speech (pdf) by Adam Bosworth a VP of Google who seems to have a remit within Google in the area of health. When you think about it health and information about healthcare should be a happy hunting ground for Google.

Like me Bosworth is fired up by the less than perfect health treatment of a parent with cancer. Many of the ideas apply fairly well known principles of search from Google to the subject of health. The central principle behind google is the idea that sites which are heavily linked to are likely to have greater value than more obscure sites. Then there’s the technologies by which networks can improve the quality of this qualitative rule. Viz

We launched Google Co-op [it’s not unlike Google reader in many ways – NG] as part of our mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible. Co-op is a small step in this direction. The idea is that we leverage the expertise of passionate experts, and allow the consumer to tell us which experts they trust the most. We believe this will be a powerful way for individual physicians to help their patients find better quality information on the web. For example, there can be a profile page for my personal physician who uses Google Co-op to indicate which websites he finds useful for his patients. He then gives me the link to his profile page (or I find it in the directory), I click “subscribe,” and now when I search on Google, his recommended sites get ranked higher. And his name appears next to each one so I know he recommended it.

This means that at least people are getting more helpful medical information in response to their search queries, helping them answer their health questions.

Then he talks about the importance of integrating all the knowledge we have about a particular patient – something that the late John Patterson was very big on in health in Australia.

We live in a world in which information flows at the speed of light and in which Google can find all the most relevant answers to any query you submit across the entire web in less than one-third of a second and yet, in general, your physician cannot get the lab results from your last specialist without paper and fax. . . . But this information really matters to use the clich©; it can be a matter of life and death. And the right word to describe our inability to put our hands on it is not oddity but travesty. Because your physician cannot always reliably and optimally treat you without a comprehensive knowledge of what has been wrong with you in the past, how you were treated, and how you responded to the treatment. The lack of easily accessible, comprehensive medical records results in people being in more pain for longer than they should be. Some people are almost certainly dying unnecessarily. Add to this the fact that, in a vain attempt to catch up and to be “safe” in the absence of shared electronic information, a barrage of unnecessary, redundant and extremely expensive tests are run over and over. Some estimates of the inefficiency in the system put the waste at $1 trillion, or more than $5,000 per family. Think what you could do with that money to truly help in health. Or even in education. It could fund well over 10 million teachers a year.

So Google’s hoping to step into the breach by providing a net based interface on which all your medical history can be recorded and to which medical professionals can get access providing you authorise them to. Of course interoperability of systems is crucial. I wrote about this in a post on medical software before. Against all the claims that interoperability is a massively difficult project this is what our friend from Google has to say.

As Google has explored this issue over the past year and we have spoken to leading health providers and institutions from coast to coast, we have heard people say that it is too hard to build consistent standards and to define interoperable ways to move the information. It is not! Ten years ago, I heard people saying the same things about how hard it would be to build consistent standards for allowing programs all across the world to share data. I set out with a small band of people to build a standard way to share any information, XML. And once we built it, within ten years it had become the lingua franca for computers to exchange data. In general, if you build a place that accepts all data and deliver the value I just described, the standards will work themselves out. The most dramatic example of this, of course, is HTML and the browser. When the value was there, suddenly all the information in the world was in HTML. When we all make this vision real for health care, suddenly everyone will figure out how to deliver the information about medicines and prescriptions, about labs, about EKGs and CAT scans, and about diagnoses in ways that are standard enough to work.

So it will be interesting to watch Google’s progress.

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David Walker
David Walker(@d-w-griffiths)
14 years ago

Bosworth’s interest bodes well for this issue. He is arguably the most productive guy ever hired by Microsoft. He designed the original version of Microsoft Access, managed the development of the Internet Explorer 4/5 HTML engine, and pushed Microsoft into XML. He knows more about the management of information than just about anyone else going around.