Health Now

My relationship with Google has grown considerably over the years, which speaks to the intelligence of Google’s end game. I’ve been 100 percent reliant on search, Gmail, GChat, Google Voice, Google Contacts, Google Maps, and Google Calendar for years and years, and now rely heavily on Google Apps for business stuff. I use Chrome as my browser on Web, tablet, and phone. I used Sparrow as my mobile and desktop e-mail client until recently (Google didn’t build Sparrow but they now own it.) I use Google’s Gmail app for mobile email search. I use Hangouts for video calls and Google Communities for small group conversations. I use Google Drive, but still primarily rely on Dropbox along with a mix of MS and Apple document editing tools for file storage; the forms tools and ability to use Google Spreadsheets as a poor man’s database are very cool. I find I’m increasingly dependent on Google, which does worry me a bit from a privacy perspective, but the products just work. Google+ is really nice too, but I don’t use it much.

My most recent obsession is mobile personal assistant tools, or personal concierge tools. The best known of these is Google Now. These tools, which are basically smart services with mobile apps as the front end, are always on and proactively delivery contextually relevant content to users. The tools are supposed to give you info you want before you go look for it. They do things like tell you, "It’s going to snow tomorrow" or, "You should leave now for your next meeting with Dr. Smith at Hospital X" or, "Your flight to SFO this afternoon is delayed by 30 minutes".

Since I have an iPhone, I started with EasilyDo, then Osito, and now Google Now. Google Now is far superior on Android. EasilyDo and Osito are trying to fill the gap on Apple devices, where all of the Google Now functionality doesn’t exist yet. As you can see from my screenshot, there are still some kinks to be worked out.

I’ve been obsessed with personal health assistants and virtual concierge care for a while now. I think smart personalized services like Google Now, which today don’t do much related to health, are incredible examples of what is possible when it comes to providing personalized information and services.

Google Now is built around the concept of cards. Cards are created for different things like Places or Events or Flights, and users can choose what cards they want to see. Google Now, on Android at least, does have an Activity summary card (above.) The card shows a comparison of your miles biked and walked in the current month vs. the previous month. I think the Activity summary card, like many new Google features, is an experiment. There is a lot more Google can do with this if they think it helps them collect more information about people. We’ll have to see.

The other health-related Google Now feature I found was a recent announcement by a healthcare marketing company called Solutionreach, which I hadn’t heard of. They apparently they offer medical practices a platform to do messaging, specifically appointment reminders. Appointment reminder e-mails from Solutionreach will be fed into Google Now automatically, assuming the emails go to a Google-hosted account.

But there many potential uses of this type of service for health and wellness. Some are unrealistic, maybe impossible:

  • When a person shows up at a restaurant, recommend a healthy meal option;
  • When a person is leaving for an appointment or arrives somewhere, recommend a route to walk instead of drive;
  • If a person is diabetic, recommend specific recipes when they arrive at the grocery store;
  • If a person is hypertensive, reminding them to test their blood pressure when they walk into a retail pharmacy;
  • Alert a person with allergies to potentially high levels of pollen or other triggers.

Some of these things what 100Plus was supposedly trying to do before they got acquire-hired by Practice Fusion. Other companies, like Asthmapolis, may be heading down some of these disease-specific routes. Disease-specific virtual personal assistants are probably easier in terms of approach than generic, all purpose tools.

Ultimately the real key is data. Outside of health, I’m sure that Google is ultimately going to win the battle, and pretty handily, because it has more data on people than almost anybody. EMRs are very well placed in terms of data, but I’d be shocked if any of the big vendors could or would build a solution like I’m describing. Payers and employers are also able to do some of these things, as are developers on MS Healthvault. On the wellness side, I think of companies like Runkeeper and Fitbit, though those companies are much more limited in the type of health data they store about people.

The main challenge is having people who actually want a virtual personal health assistant. I’m not sure when we’ll hit that tipping point, but I think having providers, employers, and maybe payers pushing it might help. You could incentivize it by having certain reminders that can be verified, then using participation to lower premium pricing.

What do you think? Have you used Google Now? Do you like it? Do you see the potential to for a health-specific version?

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

  • kylesamani

    I love the concept as a technologist. My biggest immediate concern is the creepiness factor. I think it’s less relevant for those that accept they have a chronic condition, but for those that don’t know they’re sick, I think it’s a huge turn off. No one wants to be told what to do if they feel healthy.

    I think in order for this to work, you’d need passive, frictionless access to the computer. I don’t want to pull out my iPhone everywhere I go to see what it tells me.

    Google Glass FTW 🙂

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