Google expands online health information for patients: How do physicians feel about it?

Last week, Google announced it was expanding and updating the health information that users could search. However, provider perspectives of the new offering are mixed, as some support higher patient engagement while others are concerned with certain unintended consequences.

In a Sept. 3 post announcing the expansion, Google announced it was updating its health conditions feature to include information on more than 900 health conditions, virtual design improvements and an option to download PDFs with information for patients to take to office visits.

Google said it consulted and worked with a team of physicians to curate and validate the information, which is all now available in the Google app or on a desktop computer.

TIME compiled a list of physician responses to Google's updates, a handful of which are presented here.

Eric Topol, MD, Director, Scripps Translational Science Institute (La Jolla, Calif.): I'm very supportive of this initiative — along with any that will give consumers more useful and accurate information about health matters. The quality of health information on the web is still not optimal, and hopefully Google's initiative to provide solid material on 900 conditions will be helpful. More importantly is that instead of just looking up symptoms, as has been the case with the Internet of over 20 years, we're about to move into an era when people will also have objective data (through sensors, labs, imaging, genome sequence) that will empower them to be highly active participants in their diagnosis and care.

Arthur Caplan, PhD, Director, Division of Medical Ethics, NYU Langone Medical Center (New York): I think what Google is doing is not such a bad thing. Like it or not, that's where people are going for health information. It's the future. Making it better and vetting it by doctors is a good idea. It would also be nice if every time you googled 'vaccines,' 'autism' didn't come up. People just need to remember that this is meant to aid them, but it’s not a substitute for healthcare.

William Bornstein, MD, PhD, CMO, Chief Quality Officer, Emory Healthcare (Atlanta): As always, the devil will be in the details. Unintended consequences will be inevitable but can be minimized if Google is committed to measuring the outcomes from the use of this tool and using the outcomes data to inform iterative cycles of improvement of the tool. Conflicts of interest will also need to be assiduously avoided. If Google does this right, it should provide a nice alternative to random web searches about health-related topics.

Ami Bhatt, MD, Director, Adult Congenital Heart Disease Program, Massachusetts General Hospital (Boston): While it's always important for patients to be informed, the most important facet of these advances in information dissemination is patient and physician engagement. A doctor needs to be willing and interested in the barrage of information that the patient may want to discuss with them. Oftentimes, the information a patient finds is not even relevant to their specific situation. This has happened to me as a doctor and as a patient. Unfortunately, information taken out of context can be frightening and confusing. In this era where time for the doctor and patient to connect in person is limited, we need physicians to have the time to communicate with their patients about what they are learning.

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