Would You Let Google Save Your Life?

Larry Page says mining healthcare data could save 100,000 lives.

Tim Beyers
Tim Beyers
Jul 6, 2014 at 1:00PM
Health Care

"Right now we don't data-mine health care data. If we did we'd probably save 100,000 lives next year," Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL)(NASDAQ:GOOG) chief Larry Page told The New York Times last week, amid the chaos of his company's annual developers conference.

Sound like hubris? Maybe it is, but let's also remember two things. First, Google operates what I'd consider the world's largest interconnected computer network. No single entity that I'm aware of (sorry, I don't have classified clearance) crunches more data, faster. And second, health care data is notoriously murky. Using digital horsepower to add clarity strikes me as a meaningful use of Google's resources.

3 ways more data could save your life
We've already seen Big Data at work throughout various segments of the health care industry. And why not? The human body is incredibly complex. We need machines with extraordinary, dedicated processing power to test the safety and efficacy of experimental medicines. IBM recently teamed with researchers at the Cleveland Clinic to put its Watson supercomputing technology to work on gleaning better insights from newly available electronic medical records.

Meanwhile, more than a decade after completing the Human Genome Project, enterprising companies such as Pacific Biosciences of California are still working on new ways to analyze genes for developing needed therapies. Page is right: When it comes to advanced, data-driven treatments, we're still in the discovery stage.

How might Google contribute to the movement? Here are three immediate opportunities that come to mind:

1. Pattern recognition. As the world's largest network connecting the most people, Google is uniquely qualified to spot unusual patterns that might reveal why some populations are more susceptible to certain diseases. Transporting that knowledge across borders could help to save lives.

2. Early detection. Our world is surrounded by satellites connected to data systems for early detection of severe weather events. Google, by virtue of its global presence, could be used to search for unusual spikes in reports of symptoms common to an outbreak of a dangerous disease, before it becomes a plague. 

3. Habit tracking. What makes some societies healthier than others? We have decades worth of extrapolated data born of hundreds of thousands of medical studies, but almost zero real-time data. Analyzing our shopping and eating habits via social media, e-commerce transactions, and the like, might shed light on surprisingly toxic behaviors to avoid.

Your private life is on the line
Privacy advocates may not like the trade-off. This, after all, is why we have HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which effectively states that I have a right to know who has access to my private health information. Mining data, even anonymously, could raise legal questions.

Nevertheless, efforts are already under way to collate and benefit from public health care data. Wearables, for example. ABI Research expects that within five years we'll see activity trackers such as FitBit feeding information into analysis systems, creating an entirely new $52 million market.

Both Apple and Google are already preparing for that eventuality. Last month, the Mac maker introduced HealthKit for aggregating data from a variety of sources into a single snapshot of your present well-being on any iPhone. Google Fit, unveiled at I/O, promises similar functionality for Android users.

A personal plea
I'm a Google shareholder so I tend be biased in favor of Page's unbridled enthusiasm for what technology can achieve. Here, I'm optimistic for a different reason. I want Google (and Apple, and others) mining data because -- even now, in the Information Age -- I've precious little information about how healthy (or unhealthy) I really am.

Why doesn't that frighten more people? Perhaps I'm subject to a second bias, which is that a person I care deeply for suffers as much from conflicting advice about treatment and medication as she does from the pains of recovery from life-threatening ailments. I can think of no one who'd benefit more from better data delivered transparently.

Digital miners such as Google and IBM would thrive if we reach that point, no doubt to the chagrin of privacy advocates and medical ethicists. So be it. As an investor who believes in not just putting money away for retirement, but also funding businesses that make the world a better place, that's the sort of innovation I'd like to see.