Last year, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) launched Helpouts, a marketplace where users could connect with Google-vetted experts in a variety of fields via Google+ video chats. Experts decided the rate, payments were made through Google Wallet, and Google kept 20% of the fee. However, the company waived that fee for healthcare professionals to test its use as a telehealth platform. Google's main partner in that initial phase was One Medical Group, a network of doctors located across the United States who charge between $0 and $60 per telehealth consultation.
Now Google is taking Helpouts to the next level by linking its search engine directly to telehealth consultations during a "limited trial." If a user does a search for a health-related question, a "Talk to a Doctor Now" link to a Helpouts telehealth consultation might appear. Google will foot the bill for all telehealth consultations during the trial period, which it hopes could teach more people to rely on Google-fueled remote connections with doctors.
Google has enhanced its main search engine with health-related results before. In 2009, it added special search results for emergency situations. In 2012, it provided users searching for symptoms with a list of related conditions, medications, possible side effects, and links to in-depth resources.
Will Google's connection of Helpouts with search help the tech giant start a slow takeover of the growing telehealth market, or is this idea still ahead of its time?
The growth potential of the telehealth market
Research firm IHS expects global revenue from telehealth devices and services to rise tenfold from $440.6 million in 2013 to $4.5 billion in 2018. During that time, the total number of patients using telehealth is expected to grow from less than 350,000 to 7 million.
In the U.S., a decrease in available physicians and rising demand for quality care will fuel that growth. The Council on Graduate Medical Education projects that by 2020, the nation will face a shortage of 85,000 physicians, while other studies forecast a shortfall of 200,000.
Meanwhile, 65 million baby boomers will enroll in Medicare over the next decade, which will increase demand for the limited number of doctors. Remote telehealth consultations could address this gap in supply and demand, and possibly reduce the number of physical visits to the doctor's office. These shorter consultations can also reduce the number of emergency room visits and readmissions, which can be costly to both patients and insurers.
How Google will become a telehealth giant
Google is poised to tap into the growth of the telehealth market, thanks to its dominant position in Internet search and mobile devices. The company as of August controlled 67% of the U.S. search market and 52% of smartphones via Android, according to comScore.
In 2013, the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project reported that of the 81% of U.S. adults who use the Internet, 72% had searched for health information online over the preceding year. Fifty-nine percent went online to self-diagnose themselves based on symptoms. However, self-diagnosing an illness can be dangerous, since the study showed that 38% of those who did so believed it was something they could take care of at home.
By putting a free telehealth consultation at the top of healthcare search results, Google can convince users that it's smarter to talk to a licensed medical professional instead. Some states also allow physicians to prescribe medication via a telehealth consultation, which could make it a convenient alternative to visiting the doctor's office.
Google's biggest challenge is ensuring that Helpouts is compliant with HIPAA regulations, which protect the privacy of patient records. Google has stated that its platform is secure, but that Helpouts providers who wish to use the platform with protected health information must enter a business associate agreement with Google. In other words, Google must approve the physician before he or she is allowed to access a patient's electronic health records or other information for a remote consultation.
The Foolish final word
Google has expanded its footprint into healthcare over the past year with Calico, smart medical devices, the Baseline genetic database, and Google Glass' healthcare apps. Linking Helpouts to search might not be as bold a move as those efforts, but it could raise awareness of telehealth, lower healthcare costs, and reduce potentially dangerous online self-diagnoses.