Last week, Google announced the public launch of a new service – Google Helpouts. Utilizing their existing Hangouts video teleconferencing service, Helpouts will connect users with specialized, screened “experts” in a given field who can provide real-time, human advice, intervention, and help. For now, the experts span a range of fields including technology, fashion, home improvement, and healthcare. The services offered are free or will charge, either with a flat fee or by the minute. By far, the most interesting sector that Helpouts is entering – in terms of long-term extensibility and potential social impact – is healthcare.
This is not, however, Google’s first foray into the healthcare world. Many remember GoogleHealth, which launched in 2008 promising the aggregation of an individual consumer’s health records and information into a single, centralized Personal Health Record profile. Google Health was largely unsuccessful and, citing privacy concerns and failed attempts at establishing provider relationships or revenue models, it was shuttered in 2011.
Helpouts, however, offer a much different service and show that Google has learned from previous missteps. First, all of the interactions on Google Helpouts are HIPAA compliant, easing concerns about the security of personal and patient data. Second and most notably, it represents a shift in how Google is thinking about their place in the healthcare system. Instead of becoming a data repository like GoogleHealth, Helpouts is focused on becoming the medium for receiving or experiencing care. All conducted in real-time and with live individuals, Google’s Helpouts are squarely focused on the care event itself, not the necessarily the patient profile that has led to the event.
It stands to reason that managed care organizations (MCOs) represent an ideal market for Helpouts. Real-time videoconferencing technology has the potential to benefit both patients and providers, expanding telehealth far beyond its current reach by making it accessible to anyone on the Web. For providers, it offers the potential for a direct link to consumers before any doctor visits take place – a chance to see symptoms of diseases and other problems, either preventing unnecessary emergency room visits or allowing for earlier intervention for symptoms that require an in-person visit. For patients, the ease of use and connection presents a path towards a more proactive attitude surrounding their own healthcare on a daily basis.
As of Helpouts’ launch, Google has already partnered with One Medical Group, to deliver primary care through its existing physician groups in several major US cities. Their offering, which is aimed at patients who are already being served by the physician group – though new patients may sign up as well – covers primary care topics including cold, flu, minor infections, rashes, and general consultation, and all from the comfort of their own home.
Social media in healthcare and connected health are key focus areas for our team and we’ll continue to report on Helpouts and other Google initiatives as they evolve.
Until then, let us know what you think.