Google Pilots Virtual Physician Consultations Embedded In Search Results


With no press releases or fanfare, Google quietly began piloting a new healthcare feature in its search engine last week that attempts to connect users with live virtual doctors when they are searching what Google interprets to be medical symptoms.

The new feature was first reported by a Reddit user on Friday. A man searching Knee Pain was shown not only the typical search results one would expect, but also a link that said “Talk with a doctor now.” The feature no longer appears to be live, but for a short while, Google apparently tested a virtual visit solution that would intercept users searching for medical advice before they got to competing sites, like HealthTap or Doctors On Demand, providing in-line physician consultations directly from the Google search results page.

The initiative is similar to previous projects launched by Google. In November 2013, the company unveiled Helpouts, a video chat service run through its Hangouts platform that would connect stumped DIY’ers with experts willing to lend a helping hand. In its marketing, Google positioned the platform as a way of connecting a chef with someone struggling with a recipe, or a mechanic with someone attempting their own auto repair job. However, unlike the trial version of Google’s virtual visit experiment, Google Helpouts is not free.

If Google decides to move forward with this project, which is a big “if” considering the company has a history of experimenting with new features but quickly abandoning them, they’ll likely charge a fee for the consultation. Google Hangouts charges a per minute connection fee, with rates established by the expert. Google retains 25 percent of the total bill, and the expert receives the remainder. This would be a new pricing model to the telehealth segment. Thus far, telehealth companies have been hiring physicians, launching web platforms, and then charging a flat rate per visit of between $40-$50.

With the increasing acceptance of telehealth as a care delivery option by both patients and providers, it is not surprising to see Google exploring this avenue. Now only time will tell if the company decides push further back into healthcare to compete in the virtual visit space.

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