July 18, 2019

Google's secret weapon in health care: Harvard Medical School

Daily Briefing

    As Google has sought to disrupt the health care industry, it's turned to Harvard Medical School for specialized training in how the health care system works and how doctors think.

    What 'Google health care' could look like in 5 years

    Why Google turned to Harvard

    Prem Ramaswami, a project manager at Google, said the partnership began a few years ago, at a time when Google was increasingly eyeing the health care market.

    At the time, many doctors viewed Google with suspicion or outright distrust. Too often, "Dr. Google" was returning results that were frightening to patients or simply not credible. And that was just one reflection of an underlying truth: Google had a lot to learn about health care.

    So Ramaswami turned to Harvard Medical School for help, seeking to design a series of custom executive education programs on topics such as real-world medical practice, patient experience, health economics, and more.

    About the Harvard program

    The first cohort of the program arrived on campus in 2016, according to Harvard Medical School. That cohort alternated week-long stints in Boston and briefer sessions in California, where Google is headquartered.

    The program's key goal wasn't to teach specific medical facts—which, after all, can be easily looked up on Google. What's harder, and ultimately more important, is teaching "how doctors think," according to David Roberts, Harvard Medical School's dean for external education.

    "Understanding and appreciating both the provider and the patient experience is key to developing solutions that really impact and improve the health care system," Roberts added.

    Among other activities, Google executives took a field trip to witness firsthand how providers implemented a new billing code system—an experience they found eye-opening and even alarming. As one Google employee later demanded of an instructor, "How can doctors function when faced with a medical record system that is so cumbersome to use?"

    Separately, the Google team heard from an individual patient about her experiences seeking treatment for cancer. And they engaged with tough, systemic questions about the health care system, such as how providers can improve price transparency and how racial disparities may impact quality of care.

    What Google has learned from its experience

    Veronica Pinchin, a Google project manager, said that after Google employees began the program, the company sought to make its health results more reliable. For instance, she noted that "[h]eadaches can … be migraines, thunderclap headaches, brain tumors or aneurysms, but 99% are just because you are tired and stressed." She added, "So now when you Google 'headache,' it says a headache can be normal and not caused by any underlying disease."

    The program also helped Google executives understand the cultural differences between the technology industry and the health care industry, as well as some of the major pain points for doctors in interacting with technology. For example, Katherine Chou and Kasumi Widner at Google are now working on digital assistant technology that uses speech recognition to transcribe medical conversations.

    "Our experience at Harvard Medical School played a huge role in shaping the way we think about health care. Through the program, we developed a much better sense for technology's role in addressing health care challenges," Chou said. "We're now focused on increasing the supply of high-quality care by automating workflows and lowering the administrative burden on clinicians, so they can focus more on patients."

    And what's the ultimate goal of Google's work with Harvard? "We'll know we've succeeded," Ramaswami said, "when doctors tell their patients to Google it" (Kuchler, Financial Times, 6/5; Harvard Medical School release; Becker's Health IT & CIO Report, 3/21/16).

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