One of Google's top doctors explains how its coronavirus response is feeding into its long-term plans to reinvent how people get health information

By Blake Dodge

It's been 20 months since Google's health efforts got revamped, and nearly a quarter of that time has been spent amid a pandemic.

The team started when Dr. David Feinberg, the former CEO of Geisinger Health, joined Google in January 2019. From there, Feinberg as the head of Google Health brought together scientists, engineers, and managers from across Google in an effort to get many of the trillion-dollar company's healthcare projects under the same roof. 

When the coronavirus pandemic started rolling across the US in March, the young team had to speed up projects that were only ideas — all while steering real people towards testing sites, hospitals, online appointments, and whatever else they came to Google for.  

In the months since, Google Health's projects are taking on a theme that's baked into the team's broader healthcare strategy, Dr. Karen DeSalvo, Google's chief health officer, told Business Insider.

Whether it's through YouTube, Maps, Google Assistant, or simply Google.com, the tech giant wants to guide consumers on their healthcare experience wherever and whenever they come into contact with the company.

For those that ask Google for local testing sites, in other words, the goal is to actually get them to one. For those looking for doctors, the goal is to set up an appointment.

Internally, the team calls it the "discover to action pathway," DeSalvo said. 

Read more: We found the 18 leaders at Google who are deciding the future of the tech giant's healthcare business

"We want to make sure we're thinking about the kinds of questions people are coming to us with, and how we can help them navigate that experience," she said. 

It's a key part of Alphabet's overall goal as well. During Alphabet's earnings in July, CEO Sundar Pichai told investors there's been an enormous effort across search and product teams to provide locally relevant information about coronavirus in more than 70 languages in 200 countries. 

"I'm looking at different types of user journeys and making sure each of them is getting deeper and better," Pichai said on the call. "So for example in Google, as people have started coming for more health-related information, how is that experience working?"

Read more: 11 tech chiefs, analysts, and bankers in healthcare reveal how Amazon, Microsoft, and Google have used the coronavirus to make new inroads in the $3.6 trillion industry

Google shows testing centers
Google's search results for "hospital" show which centers are testing for coronavirus.
Google

Google is flagging relevant health information based on your search terms

DeSalvo said Google is well aware of its responsibility to uplift information that's credible, especially amid a pandemic.

Her job is to lead a clinical team at Google Health tasked with making products for clinicians and consumers, she said. As one of Google's top doctors, DeSalvo also advises the rest of the company about health and coronavirus on a case by case basis.

Prior to Google, she was New Orleans' health commissioner after Hurricane Katrina and helped the US Department of Health and Human Services respond to Zika and Ebola outbreaks. 

"My experiences in public health, and in science and in medicine, are that it's really hard to get the right information to people," she said. 

In response to people asking questions about COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, Google Health designed a self-assessment for coronavirus with health agencies around the world. It's triggered by certain search terms, and the results give people an idea of whether they should see a doctor or get tested. 

Google self assessment for covid
Google's self-assessment for coronavirus.
Google

It rolled out a similar screener for mental health in May, as Americans struggled to grapple with their new realities. Thoughts of suicide nearly doubled compared to the year before, and anxiety and depression increased more than fourfold in the last year.  

Prompted by soaring demand for telehealth, Google's health unit also sped up development for a "virtual care feature" that launched in April. 

If medical professionals are able to do phone or video visits, Google can now say so in a little blurb reading "Get online care" in their normal search results on Google.com and maps. It links to sites like Mount Sinai's telehealth services in New York, which has options for doctors' appointments. 

A second aspect of the feature displays names of telehealth companies with links and price information when people search for things like "immediate care" in Search and Maps. That's not available everywhere in the US yet. 

Google virtual care feature 2 Mount Sinai
Google's search results for "hospital" show options for online care in a new feature.
Google

Other search upgrades show people active testing sites, credible health information on YouTube, and how to find guidance from their local health department, DeSalvo said.

"We're trying to get the world's health information available for consumers where it matters," including for depression, anxiety, diabetes, and coronavirus, she said.

Google's work helping people navigate their healthcare is still in its early days

DeSalvo cautioned that Google Health's consumer-facing work is still early. For now, the group's machine learning is much farther along, with some devices already being used to make medical diagnoses faster and more accurate

Another huge coronavirus project has been Google's contract-tracing program with Apple, which isn't related to user searches. Four US states and 16 countries or regions are using it to tell people if they've likely been exposed to coronavirus, according to the company.

Ultimately, however, some industry leaders think Google could become a kind of Expedia for doctors' visits, per Business Insider's interviews. One of Google Health's oldest projects helps doctors search medical records, and obviously the tech giant's long history started with a humble search engine. 

Read more: The man who helps hospitals and clinics move to Google's cloud shares how the coronavirus pandemic is shaping its healthcare push

The larger company has asked Google Health specifically to think through how it can improve the world's health, which involves direct work with consumers — not just the providers who care for them, DeSalvo said.

"If we're going to really make a difference in the lives of people's health, we have to do that by addressing not only tools and support for carers, but we have to do that as much as we can directly to consumers and other parts of the system," DeSalvo said.