Last week, Michael Millenson, president of Health Quality Advisors LLC, and an associate professor of medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, authored a thought-piece in the online publication STAT, entitled, “Google is quietly infiltrating medicine—but what rules will it play by?” Millenson looked at the emerging landscape in healthcare around the accelerating participation of healthcare consumers in using web search, consumer-facing apps, and other tools, to help them educate themselves about personal health and healthcare delivery issues, as well as the emergence of a number of corporations, including Google, Amazon, and Apple, as disruptors in the healthcare world—both as innovators in technology, as well as, increasingly, players in the care management and care delivery arenas.
“If ‘data is the new oil,’ as the internet meme has it, Google and its Big Tech brethren could become the new OPEC,” Millenson wrote on January 3. “Search is only the start for Google and its parent company, Alphabet. Their involvement in health care can continue through a doctor’s diagnosis and even into monitoring a patient’s chronic condition for, essentially, forever.”
Meanwhile, Millenson wrote, “Suppose you’re worried that you might have diabetes. Googling ‘diabetes’ brings up not just links but also a boxed summary of relevant information curated by the Mayo Clinic and other Google partners. Google recently deployed an app enabled with artificial intelligence for remote professionals to use that can all but confirm diabetes-related retinopathy, a leading cause of blindness. Diabetes is also a diagnosis your doctor might have predicted using more Google AI applied to the electronic health record. Meanwhile, a Google joint venture called Onduo recently announced a partnership to allow a major pharmacy chain to use its “virtual diabetes clinic” to coach patients on managing their disease. And, of course, at home you can get daily diabetes reminders from your Google Assistant.”
And, in some cases, he added, “[Y]our doctor could actually be Dr. Google. The brick-and-mortar Cityblock clinic, whose first site opened in Brooklyn, N.Y., earlier this year, is an Alphabet spinoff. It promises a ‘personalized health system’ experience for low-income patients.”
And with Google hiring the former chief executives of both the Geisinger Health system and the Cleveland Clinic, more and more interesting developments are certain to be at hand.
And all of this, Millenson noted, is prompting some in the industry to ask what the implications are of these developments for the social contracts that have long anchored physician-patient/clinician-patient, and patient care organization-patient relationships and interactions. In that context, he spoke with Healthcare Innovation Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland, following the publication of his STAT commentary, to discuss the implications of some of those current trends, for the future of patient care delivery. Below are excerpts from that interview.
There are so many developments taking place right now involving what might be called “interspecies” business combinations—payers and providers, payers and retail pharmacy companies, employers and providers, and on and on. Do you see some potential dangers in the uncharted territory that’s emerging in healthcare, because of such combinations?
What I was trying to sound as a cautionary note, not an alarm, but a cautionary note, was that, when barriers are breached in terms of definitions, there are new challenges to long-established ways that we do things. We all like to talk about disruption, but there are downsides. And those downsides need to be confronted squarely. And what I was trying to propose in my commentary was a practical ethical framework for dealing with downsides—not a mission statement, or whatever, but practical thoughts. If you have a commitment to accountability and shared responsibility, it brings up issues. Just because you believe you’re committed to patient engagement or lowering healthcare costs, or whatever noble goals you espouse, particularly if you’re working for a not-for-profit entity, or even a for-profit, personal and corporate interests can conflict with noble goals.
And even as all these kinds of partnerships can be wonderful, we also realize we need new ways of dealing with potential negative side effects. No hospitals that merge ever say, thank God we can get rid of the price pressure from insurance companies! And it’s not that individuals making statements about mergers are deliberately telling untruths, but they sometimes make statements that may not be in the best interests of patients.
Healthcare informatics arose from people who were in the HC field, who wanted to apply the benefits of informatics knowledge to improving care, lowering costs, and other problems. That’s a different set of assumptions from when you take people whose expertise is in manipulating data and information, and put them into healthcare. There are cultural issues there. People from within HC tend to say, there are certain problems, and let’s look for solutions.
But people outside healthcare sometimes have the tendency to say, we have this wonderful tool; look at all the ways we can solve your problems.
Looking at the entry into the healthcare delivery process of disruptors like Google, simply because of the near-universality now of web search as a consumer activity in healthcare—will consumers simply start self-diagnosing off the web now?
It’s one thing to look at Google as a search engine. It’s another to look at the issue of Google as an element in care delivery. The issue of “Dr. Google” is a significant one. I wrote an article recently called, “Beyond Dr. Google.” What happens if you’re using the Babylon Symptom Checker with AI? What happens if you’re looking at a mole? Because they’ll have a legal disclaimer. But we’re looking at an entire paradigm shift around how we interact with doctors. Years ago, I said the Information Age is to medicine as the Protestant Reformation was to the Catholic Church. It changed the people’s relationships to the priests; the Church didn’t go out of business, but it had to change. Once the laity could read the Bible, the role of the priests had to change. And I think that the role of physicians as holders of knowledge, has to change. They still have specialized knowledge; but the conversation has to change, and the tone has to change.
What I’m concerned about is when an organization like Google, Amazon, or Apple, starts partnering with physicians, what happens? When Google, Amazon or Apple, starts being a partner to help you with your diabetes, are they helping you have a better conversation? Or are they starting to use gathered information to try to cause behavior change, to manipulate you? And there’s a fine line between doing this for your own good, or because I want you to change?
And then there’s the accountable care issue—when you have attributed patients, and it’s in your financial interest now to collect and use social-determinants-of-health data and other forms of data, as well as apps and tools, to try to motivate your patients towards participating in the enhancement of their health status.
Exactly—now, there’s also a profit motive. I wrote an article about the secret use of the social determinants of health, for care management—and for profit, on the part of vendors that are putting data into algorithms and selling those solutions. LexisNexis found a correlation between someone in the household having completed some kind of professional certification, anything from a plumber’s license to a PhD—with medication compliance and adherence. The point is, you get companies that use information about my life, as raw data for analytics, that are meant to influence my behavior. We need a different kind of safeguard doesn’t go awry. And I’m not saying that what they’re doing might not be wonderful and disruptive in a good way, but nothing turns out as promised, whether Brexit or Google.
The social contract in healthcare, particularly between providers and patients, especially that between physicians and patients—what might that look like, or need to look like, in the coming years?
I see collaborative health as the new social contract. I’m not sure that that patriarchal, hierarchical relationship has changed as much as we might be thinking. I remember writing things 30 years ago that everything would change, and the hierarchies would be totally gone. They haven’t disappeared, though. Your grandmother was probably just grateful to see a doctor. And there are still a lot of people in the country who are still grateful just to see a doctor.
So part of that issue involves socioeconomic class, of course?
Yes, absolutely. That said, I also absolutely agree that a new social contract is going to center around collaborative health. And an explicit one is needed. There’s a lot of talk about that, around Google, Facebook, Alexa. But the medical element is different. When organizations that have tremendous data analytics capabilities, are applying those to the problems of individual patients, that gives us both the potential for unprecedented breakthroughs in patient care, and for the unprecedented ability to manipulate people. The fact that I know everything about your Google searches, your purchasing and eating patterns, and I’m tracing your driving patterns—that can help me improve your health, but also control your life, and manipulate people. And even if the decisions are to your benefit, a social contract demands shared engagement and shared accountability, because that’s the social contract that medicine needs, to retain its soul—even if that doesn’t help increase the value of the IPO or the price-earnings ratio, or the amount of money you get back from meeting your obligations under an ACO contract.
How do you see physicians and other clinicians adapting to this new world?
I think the social contract is even more important, because the power of the individual doctor is often decreasing now. If more and more doctors will be employed, and operating under stricter rules of accountability, that’s good for patients, but the balance between accountability and autonomy is a balance we’ve got to find. And we should welcome Amazon, Apple, and Google—they have an incredible potential to disrupt HC for the better; but the individual doctor, just like the individual patient, is going to be powerless to set a new social contract on their own. That’s why we need a social contract that encompasses clinicians, patients, patient care organizations, payers, pharmaceuticals, and everyone. It may be to my benefit that my doctor is using an app to track population health issues, but with the blurring of lines between different types of organizations, things get complex. Information is power, and the information we’re gathering is extraordinarily powerful, and good things can go awry. So frankly, I see this new social contract as a protection for physicians, and as something that will ensure that the “therapeutic alliance” that doctors like to talk about, will remain strong, even as other boundaries dissolve. And whether my doctor is employed by an insurance company, a hospital, or is a solo practitioner, it should make no difference to certain kinds of relationships.