Will Google Disrupt Telehealth?

By Jill | Editorial

Imagine you’re searching the Internet for information about those funny lumps on your elbow or that queasy feeling in your stomach, and you are suddenly looking at a popup window with a live doctor waiting to help you. You might think that’s either fantastic or disturbing. But it is part of Google’s Helpouts platform, a service that enables Web surfers to engage live experts on topics as diverse as fashion, parenting, painting, or cooking.

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Otherwise known as telehealth, the Google service is essentially a question-and-answer platform where people can engage with a doctor for a flat rate or hourly fee. Google hand-picks the healthcare personnel and runs background checks on them. In order to participate, the patient simply needs a Google+ and Google Wallet account. Within moments they can be video-chatting with a certified health provider.

While telehealth can be used to perform sophisticated robotic surgery between facilities thousands of miles apart, Google is aiming its services at those with simple medical problems and those who live in underserved communities.

Of course there are risks to telehealth patients. Those with complex illnesses, mental health problems, and drug allergies might be a risk when dealing with doctors online. However, telehealth studies conducted in the United Kingdom showed a 45 perception reduction in mortality rates and a 20 perception reduction in emergency room admissions.

On my recent visit to Google Health Helpouts I found one physician available for a free consultation and others providing services from $1.20 to $3.00 a minute. There were $150 therapy sessions, $20 weight loss assistance sessions, and a gastrointestinal expert who charged $25 for 15 minutes. (Fortunately I didn’t need any of them.) While it might seem disconcerting to consult with a freelance physician who sells his services like a “rug doctor,” telehealth is here to stay. And Google Glass, as a medical device, will propel telehealth into the future. The wearable computer can take quickly photos and videos of injuries, scan medications, make phone calls, and locate health records. Telehealth is the wave of the future and the future is now.