Jacob Friedman's tweet from February might be prophetic. Earlier this year, Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) invited people to apply via Twitter to be one of 8,000 to win the opportunity to try out its new Google Glass. Friedman responded by tweeting that if he had Google Glass, he would "use it to revolutionize health care." A little over a month later, Google responded to Friedman that he would get his chance.
Can Google really revolutionize health care, though? In some ways, it already has -- even before all the buzz over Google Glass. In other respects, there's still a long way to go.
A revolution under way
Google's search technology began a revolution of sorts in health care a while back. Nielsen found that 57% of baby boomers have used the Internet to find health and wellness information. Another study found that the same percentage of mothers get health information online. 75% of patients research their symptoms on the Internet before talking with their doctors.
All that is great, but does it necessarily mean that Google is part of the revolution? Actually, yes. A 2009 OTX study found that a whopping 86% of patients who used the Internet to research health-care information used -- drum roll, please -- Google.
That word "revolutionize" has also been used to describe the impact of the Google Search Appliance on specific health-care organizations. The product uses the search engine technology deployed by Google on the Internet to help business bring universal search capabilities to their internal systems and data.
Canada's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre uses Google Search Appliance to help clinicians, administrators, and medical students gain immediate access to information stored in hundreds of thousands of documents. Sunnybrook's Oliver Tsai stated that Google's product "unlocked and revealed information we didn't even know we had."
Glass half full
Use of search in health care is old news, though. Some now point to Google Glass as the next big thing to shake up the health-care industry.
Several of the Google Glass prototype users have already demonstrated cool ways to use the technology in health care. Dr. Rafael Grossman, for example, livestreamed his endoscopic insertion of a feeding tube into a patient. Grossman's trial run demonstrated the potential for physicians to view and possibly even consult on surgical operations conducted in other geographical regions.
Doctors at Hartford Hospital have limited their use of Google Glass to simulations so far. However, they could be on to some good ways the technology could be used to improve health care. Residents were able to view patient data through Google Glass during simulated surgeries on mannequins. Real-time access to key information during surgery could be a big deal.
Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) saw enough potential for the technology that its Qualcomm Life subsidiary recently launched an incubator with Palomar Health focused on using Google Glass in health care. The incubator, named Glassomics, hopes to move beyond "trivial applications."
Initial ideas identified by Glassomics include a platform based on Qualcomm technology that would present clinical results to Glass users using a peer-to-peer network. Another concept the incubator plans to pursue is MARS, or Medical Augmented Reality System. The goal of MARS will be to incorporate voice recognition, image detection command, and control applications using Google Glass.
Possibly the most intriguing health-care opportunities lie in how Google Glass could connect with other technology. An obvious possibility is IBM's (NYSE:IBM) Watson.
New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center plans to use Watson as something of a physician's assistant. The goal is for Watson's natural language processing, hypothesis generation and evaluation, and evidence-based learning capabilities to help doctors diagnose and treat patients. Connecting Watson to Google Glass could be a winning combination.
Granted, there are plenty of hurdles for Google Glass -- especially those related to privacy and security. And it hasn't been all that long ago that another technology from Google heralded as a potential health-care game changer folded. Google Health, the company's online personal health records system, shut down in 2011 after only three years of operation.
I think, though, that Google actually will revolutionize health care. I also suspect that other technology companies that align themselves with Google Glass, including Qualcomm and possibly IBM, will be part of the revolution themselves. Investors, take note: Revolutionaries can be big winners over the long run.