Google Knowledge Graph and Health

Does everybody know what Google Knowledge Graph is? Google announced it this past summer and has been rapidly expanding the number of objects and facts it contains.

The Knowledge Graph is Google’s effort to evolve beyond simple searches (not that Google’s technology is simple) of strings to searching for objects with context and relationships. If you haven’t heard of the Knowledge Graph, you’ve probably seen it when you search for a famous person or  place. On the right hand side, Google presents a nice little summary view of the object or topic that was searched. Below is an example search for "Osler."

 Screen Shot 2012-12-07 at 1.30.33 PM
William Osler is super famous in medicine, but something the graph taught me that I didn’t know before was that Osler was Canadian. First Steve Nash, then Osler, or vice versa.

Other than the cool little summary view on the right, the graph results include information that Google considers to be the most relevant to the topic, as determined by Google’s extensive aggregate search history. This is pretty cool because it’s based on crowdsourced usage of Google, which is probably a good proxy for what most people are interested in finding. As much as people (me included) don’t like the way Google tracks Internet activity and Amazon tracks users, it does make finding things more convenient.

We can now see the first iteration of Google’s search engine of the future. It could change considerably or be abandoned all together like Google Health, but smart search is fundamental to Google’s success that this is likely not to go the way of Google Health or Google Wave. The key thing about this to me is that Google is aggregating and curating content from different sources in search results, not simply pointing to sites that have the information.

Google is the key access point to all things Internet and will be for the foreseeable future. That’s a powerful position. Now Google is changing how it shows results. That’s important.

Great, but why should I care now? Two reasons. First, Google added medications to its list of categories included in the Knowledge Graph a couple weeks ago.

Second, people increasingly turn to the Internet to look for health information. Current Pew data shows that 80 percent of Internet users use it for health-related information. That’s not very surprising. Also not surprising is that the four most common health-related information types accessed on the Internet are conditions, treatments and meds, providers, and facilities. Searching for providers and facilities seem to count as places searches in the Knowledge Graph and results on the right side include maps, links to reviews, and similar searches.

But searching for medications and conditions has thus far not been a part of the Graph. Try searching for the name of a medication — either generic or brand name — and Google will give you a nice little summary of the med, including class; pregnancy risk; conditions treated with it; and links to information about side effects, warnings, and how to use the med. The information comes from the FDA, NLM, Micromedex, and DailyMed.

Screen Shot 2012-12-07 at 9.16.31 AM 

I was impressed that the Graph found hydrochlorothiazide when I typed the short name "hctz." I was also impressed at the source of the content since its at mostly government sites. I imagine this is why the NLM and other government agencies are opening up their data — to make it more accessible.

In reality, the Graph is just a matter of convenience, as the data that creates the Graph summary is just the first four or five results of traditional search. I think it does make you next click more valuable because you have a better idea of where you want to go. Eventually, I imagine Google will get paid more per click if that is the case.

 Screen Shot 2012-12-07 at 9.15.03 AM

Conditions are still not included, as I tried "diabetes" but got nothing for the Graph. Also, vaccines do not return anything from the Graph, but that would be great if it pulled data from trusted sources for those.

I was initially excited about the integration of medications when I read about it. It does put most of what you want to know or get to right in front of you on the search results page, which is nice. It integrates data from several trusted sources, which is also nice. But I don’t really think it changes how people find medication information because the same data is contained it the top search results, and I imagine those are what the vast majority of people click.

There is certainly a lot more Google could do, like integrate a price list of medications from somebody like GoodRx (and take a cut of each click). It will be interesting to see how this evolves over time because people will increasingly turn to the Internet, and to Google, to access health information.

Google’s Knowledge Graph is not to be confused with Runkeeper’s Health Graph, which I interpret as just being its API. Runkeeper makes it easy for health and fitness apps and devices to integrate data from other apps and devices, but there is not intelligence or broader health search, at least as far as I can tell, right now.

Travis Good is an MD/MBA involved with health IT startups. More about me.

  • Brandi

    Hi Travis, personally, I think that Google is going to have a hard time getting users to trust anything medical related, even basic searches. There are more resources available to us now that make it easier to find what we need. UpToDate is one example.

    Bing, Google, Yahoo… A search engine is just a search engine. The databases of knowledge will contine to grow and we will no longer have to sift through questionable results because they will come from a more trusted source. Take Wolfram Alpha for example. When you search, it will tell you where the information is being pulled from.

    Google keeps trying to nudge their way into the medical space. We all know they have tried before and failed miserably. They should just accept the fact that it will probably never happen. They should give up already and move on to something else. Just my two cents.

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