Google is testing a service in which some health-related searches result in the option of launching a live video chat with a medical professional. The test is powered by Google Helpouts, a feature launched late last year that puts people in touch with a range of experts via online video.
News of the test emerged when Reddit user Jason Houle last Friday posted a screenshot of the results he got when he did a Google search for "knee pain." The image shows a video camera icon next to the message, "Talk with a doctor now."
Upon clicking an icon to the right of that image for more information, Houle saw a pop-up message that said: "Based on your search query, we think you are trying to understand a medical condition. Here you can find health care providers who you can visit with over video chat. All visit costs are covered by Google during this limited trial."
'See If It's Useful'
We reached out to Google to learn more about the trial video healthcare service.
"When you're searching for basic health information -- from conditions like insomnia or food poisoning -- our goal is to provide you with the most helpful information available," a Google spokesperson said. "We're trying this new feature to see if it's useful to people."
Google is offering the video chat service to a limited number of users who search for specific health complaints that include the common cold and pink eye. It is reportedly working with several partners -- Scripps and One Medical among them -- that are providing doctors with verified credentials to participate in in the trial.
The video chat service is being tested only in California and Massachusetts, according to a report in The Guardian. Google did not say how long the trial is expected to run or what kind of data is being collected during the test run.
One of Many Google Health Projects
Houle's post on Reddit about the test generated numerous responses, ranging from enthusiastic ("That's really cool") to tongue-in-cheek ("It's probably just Watson's API chatting back to people" -- Watson being IBM's high-powered cognitive computer that has proven better than some doctors in cancer diagnoses.)
When asked whether he had actually initiated a video chat as a result of his search, Houle responded that he hadn't.
"I was looking for exercises to reduce the pain and didn't want to waste a doctor's time since there is already a lot of information out there," he wrote.
Under Google's policies for Helpouts, providers who want to offer video chat help for healthcare must be licensed or certified as defined under the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996. Users of the healthcare service must also be age 18 or older. Healthcare Helpouts are currently available only in the U.S.
In a "Fireside chat" with Khosla Ventures leader Vinod Khosla this past summer, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin discussed their interest in using better data management and analytics to improve healthcare. The company is also exploring other healthcare-focused technologies, including glucose-reading contact lenses being developed at the Google X research facility, an Android-based fitness app called Google Fit and a spinoff company called Calico that is focused on biotechnology research.