Google Health launched last Monday, which sent the world’s Google-watchers into a tizzy. I serve on Google Health’s Advisory Council – which met all day Tuesday – and so here’s a bit of inside dish, along with my impressions of the site and the company.FYI,
my work on the Council is covered by a Non-Disclosure Agreement, so I
won’t reveal anything that isn’t publicly known regarding Google’s
products or intentions. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, you
should know that I am compensated for my Google service. (No stock options, darn it.) With that as background, here’s the scoop. Google
began working on its version of the personal health record a couple of
years ago, after the company realized that a remarkably high percentage
of searches were for health information (I know, if that’s going to be
how priorities are set, you’re wondering if Google Sex is next). Google
put together an impressive team to develop the concept. One of the
leads is a former UCSF medicine resident, Dr. Roni Zeiger. Many of our
residents come to me for career advice, and I seem to recall Roni
asking me about pursuing his interests in informatics after residency
about a decade ago. Sage that I am, I probably told him that this
computer thing didn’t have legs. Luckily he didn’t listen, and now he’s
the top doc at Google. Go figure.
Another lead player in Google
Health is Missy Krasner, an effervescent woman who served as David
Brailer’s senior advisor when he was the first federal IT czar. Missy,
who sports an ever-present smile, serves as the glue that holds the
team together, and her knowledge of all the national IT players
(including those in DC) is crucial.
Google Health’s Advisory Council is chaired by Dean Ornish, the famous physician-author, and includes a bunch of luminaries, including Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove, Harvard’s CIO John Halamka, and Dan Crippen,
former head of the Congressional Budget Office and now a top McCain
advisor. Yesterday’s meeting was held in a large conference room in the
in Mountain View, CA; a huge Google poster was on the wall, with the
first “o” in Google morphed into a cartoon of Einstein’s face, and the
notation “=mc2” following the “e” in Google.
began with a vision of aggregating personal health information in one
place. It rapidly became clear that asking a 75-year-old to type in 13
meds was a non-starter, so the team began to focus on establishing
links that would allow data-sharing between Google Health and large
healthcare entities that control key data. Ergo, Google Health would be
an aggregator of data, a trusted and portable repository of health
information. You can only imagine the challenges of establishing these
affiliation agreements, particularly working through each
organization’s privacy and proprietary concerns. Impressively, 14 partners
were signed up by the launch, including two large provider systems (the
Cleveland Clinic and Beth Israel-Deaconess), several pharmacy systems
(Walgreens, Longs, CVS), a pharma benefits company (Medco), and the
company that performs about half the lab tests in the U.S. (Quest
Diagnostics). Reps of all these companies were there for the launch and
Why did all of these companies want to play
(after all, they already host websites with significant functionality).
There were probably a number of business reasons, but I think that the
Walgreens representative captured the true motivation when she said,
“Hey, I work for Walgreens. This is Google.” One can’t put a monetary
value on the “cool” value of teaming up with Google.
What about the Google Health site
itself? I’d recommend you play around with it. The site looks “Googly”
– the lines are clean and attractive. I found it easy to enter diseases
and meds, and to check for drug interactions. There are already a bunch
of neat tools linked through “Personal Health Services.”
the other hand, the Find-a-Doctor function is a start, but needs work.
It should provide more useful credentialing and quality data – right
now the map of the doctor’s office is its most prominent feature, which
is fine if you’re searching for a Starbucks but not if you’re searching
for a cardiologist. When I look for an ENT doc in Philadelphia, at the
minimum I’d want to see board certification, med school, residency, and
fellowship. And ultimately, I’ll want to see quality data, volume by
diagnosis, publications, and patient and perhaps even peer ratings.
Ditto for hospitals.
The partner interface thing works well – I
found it easy to link to one of the partnering sites (in my case,
Walgreens), and, during a demo at the Council meeting, we were able to
import one of our member’s medical records from the BI Deaconess site
into his Google Health record. “Never forget this day,” said one of the
Council members, with forgivable hyperbole. “You’ve just seen a
demonstration of portability.” Is that how Thomas Edison felt?
Council meetings over the past two years, we really hammered away on
the privacy theme. Unless people feel 100% confident that their medical
records won’t be leaked, shared, or sold, they won’t feel comfortable
jumping in the Personal Health Record pool. Of course, the majority of
the reviews of the site (in traditional media and the blogosphere – a few of the best are here, here, and here)
scrutinized this issue with a fine tooth comb, and most came away
reasonably impressed. It seems to me that Google has done a nice job addressing the concerns about leaked personal data.
notice that there is no advertising on the site. “How are they going to
make money?” my mother asked me, cutting to the chase. I remember
sitting next to Google CEO Eric Schmidt at a prior Council meeting, and
he said simply, “Getting into health is the right thing for Google to
do.” And I believed him. Of course, you can afford to be a little
altruistic when your market cap is $100B. Marissa Mayer,
the tech genius and Silicon Valley rockstar with overall responsibility
for the Google Health project (she has the Googly title of “VP of
Search and User Experience”) made the point again yesterday. “Not
everything we do has to make money,” she said. “Google is an ecosystem”
– a term used repeatedly around Google – “and we’re trying to grow a
loyal, devoted user base.”
Where is Google Health going?
American healthcare is a series of disconnected and dysfunctional
silos. Unless you are lucky enough to be in a closed system (Kaiser
Permante or the VA, for example), your best hope for coordinated care
is if you or your family serve as your own orchestra conductor.
Although several companies are jumping into the mix (Microsoft, Revolution Health),
Google is probably best positioned to do it right. It has both the
trust and the eyeballs of the public, enjoys strong partner
relationships, and boasts a universe of developers itching to build
applications that add functions. As one example of the latter point,
launched (which lets you customize your main Google Search page), there
were about 10 third party applications (those cute little widgets like
calculators and Letterman’s Top Ten list) available. A couple of years
later, the number is about 75,000.
From my two years working
with Google on this and another project (more on that one in a future
post), I have come to appreciate the company’s unique culture and
lingo. I’ll close with a few observations, along with reflections on
how they may impact Google Health over time:
- Google people are wickedly smart. And they’re nice. It is a bit scary.
are also really happy (or so it seems), despite the fact that they work
their tails off. People say things like “we think we’re changing the
world” and truly believe it.
- Why wouldn’t they be happy?
They work for a great company, with smart and interesting people, in a
beautiful place with great weather. And they make a lot of money.
Anybody who isn’t happy should have his or her head examined.
of the way Google gets these young folks (you never see anybody over 50
on campus, and most look to be about 25-35, even those in leadership
roles) to work their tails off is by making the Googleplex into the
nicest college campus you’ve ever seen. “How do I get to building 43?”
I remember asking on my first visit. “Oh, walk between the hot tub and
the sushi bar, take a right after the big dinosaur, and it’s right
there.” No kidding. There is no reason to ever leave, and it seems that
many people hardly ever do.
- The food is really terrific. And yes, it is
free for staff and visitors. On Tuesday, the choices included Croque
Monsieur, caramelized scallops in brown butter, and freshly made
California Rolls. But before you get too jealous, realize that it isn’t
all Utopia – the sushi was limited to six pieces per customer.
about information technology? Yes, they do that too. Here, Google’s
obsession is on the user experience. As in Marissa’s answer re: making
money off Google Health, their corporate philosophy hinges on making
Google the destination for all your IT needs (including some you didn’t
know you had until Google filled them) – they know they can “monetize”
your eyeballs (read: display ads) eventually without having to nickel
and dime you at every turn.
- An incredible culture of
restraint and discipline is built into their corporate DNA. It is
manifest in all kinds of ways. There are no fancy cars in the parking
lot (I’m told that a few years ago, one of Google’s top brass
threatened to take a chainsaw to any showy car he saw in the lot). I
assume that many people have Porsches at home, but it is not a “flout
your wealth” kind of place. I saw more bikes than Beamers.
addition, the iconic uncluttered look of Google pages (beginning with
the famous home page but extending to everything they do) is a miracle.
When you sit around the table brainstorming with Googlers or their
advisors, everybody has a great idea. The trick is in the
filtering – the recognition that the cost of clutter is simply too
high. That takes extraordinary discipline.
- This philosophy also
plays out in their launch strategy for new products. When they launch a
new site, they want it to be good and stable, but they don’t obsess
about making it perfect. (After all, it’s not like they have to reprint
a book if they find a typo.) Instead, the mantra is “iterate, iterate,
iterate.” Get it out there, “mine” user behavior religiously (they
follow every click for signs that Search needs to be improved, for
example), and continuously strive to make it better. It is a winning
strategy. Obviously. And people now have come to intuitively appreciate
this philosophy sufficiently to give Google the benefit of the doubt.
So, even if you visit Google Health and say, darn, I wish it did X or
Y, there is a pretty good chance you’ll come back to the site over
time, because your past experience tells you that your wish list might
just be filled by your next visit.
- The “Don’t be Evil”
(Google’s corporate motto) thing is real (or, if not, they’ve fooled
me). Here’s one small window into it, told to me by one of the key
leaders in Google Search. You’d be shocked to know how often the Google
search algorithm is tweaked to make it a teeny bit better (I can’t give
you the precise number, but trust me, it is more often than you think).
“I used to work at another company that did Search,” this Googler told
me. “Before I ever touched the search algorithm, I needed to get the
approval of the business types, since I might be changing their ad
revenue formulas. But at Google, the message to me has always been,
‘just make Search into the best user experience possible. We’ll deal
with the business consequences.’” This is remarkable, since a tiny
recalibration of the search algorithm might cost the company millions
of dollars in ad revenue (since ad charges were based on the old
algorithm). “In years of working here, I’ve never heard a single person
complain about this.” That is one amazing culture.
- Google is
all about scalability, another Silicon Valley buzzword. Google Health,
like many Google apps, is really a platform on which partners and third
party developers can work their magic. So, although the functionality
of GH is fairly limited today, come back in a few months and I’m
guessing you’ll see all kinds of medical calculators, reminder systems,
data sharing links, tailored searches, slick ways to find a doctor,
connections to the literature, advice, maybe even user groups. Google
will have developed only a small part of this – most of it will be
third party products building on Google’s scaffolding.
- One key
question for Google Health going forward will be how to parse all the
great ideas that are likely to spring up. Here are a few: What if there
is another Vioxx recall – should Google create a way to notify 100,000
people on Google Health who are on a certain med? How about 1,000
people who have a recalled pacemaker? Yes? OK, then, how about when a New England Journal
blockbuster article comes out demonstrating a much better way to manage
Type 2 diabetes – do they let all diabetics know? And how much should
the data be “mined” looking for patterns? One way to identify an
emerging epidemic or bioterrorist attack might be to notice a surge in
searches for “shortness of breath” or “skin rash” from a given locale.
Should Google’s mega-computers be sniffing these things out? And should
researchers have access to Google Health data (stripped of personal
identifiers) – what better way to find out the average creatinine of
community-dwelling octogenarians with diabetes and hypertension? All of
these issues – and more – will inevitably arise. In general, it
appeared to me that Google’s philosophy on these “wouldn’t it be great
if…” ideas is to go slow – and to never sacrifice the user’s experience
Ultimately, patients need to be able to
control their own health records, and to have them reliably available
when they move from hospital to SNF, from primary care doc to
specialist, or from car crash to an ER far from home. At this moment, I
see Google Health as the best hope for accomplishing this in the near
future, and as a remarkable opportunity to blend the scrapbook aspects
of a personal health record with all kinds of functions that might well
lead to better health and healthcare. Congratulations to the Google
team for a great start.
Now go iterate…