May 14, 2024 - Business

Google exec lays out dispersed health strategy

Google chief health officer Karen DeDalvo and Axios tech reporter Ina Fried at the Axios BFD in San Francisco.

Karen DeSalvo speaks onstage with Ina Fried. Photo: Chris Constantine.

Google may have dissolved its formal health division years ago but the company remains active in the sector, per chief health officer Karen DeSalvo.

Why it matters: Google Health was formally dismantled in 2021, with its units scattered throughout the search giant, raising questions about the company's strategy.

Zoom in: DeSalvo described a gamut of health initiatives spanning search, cloud, diagnostic models, and consumer wellness on stage at the Axios BFD event in San Francisco with tech reporter Ina Fried.

What she's saying: "We've woven [our health efforts] into all of our product areas, as opposed to trying to put it in one space," said DeSalvo.

  • During the pandemic, Google realized it needed to focus on the quality of the health information its search engine surfaced, she said, which was part of the rationale to dismantle the formal health division.
  • "What we learned...in the pandemic...is that every day half a billion people are knocking on our front door, which is search, asking us a health question," DeSalvo said. "We have a really important consumer-facing front door and needed to strengthen our health information quality."

Inside the room: Google's more recent health care efforts include a project with HCA, the nation's largest health system, using generative AI to help address nurse burnout during shift changes.

  • "Could we help improve the efficiency [of] that shift change — a summarization of what happened in those hours of that shift — handing that off to the next nurse?" said DeSalvo.

Other recent AI projects include using LLMs to help contextualize data from wearable devices (recall that Google in 2021 closed its $2.1 billion acquisition of Fitbit).

  • "Not just how many steps I took, but what else was going on in my life that day when I took fewer steps...what were the patterns that the personal LLM is going to be able to see to help me," said DeSalvo.

Another major focus area of Google's AI work is medical imaging. The company recently fine-tuned the models that power its Med Gemini 3D tool, for example, which reads three-dimensional scans like CTs and answers questions about those images.

  • In a recent, non-peer-reviewed paper published in ArXiv, the model became the first LLM capable of generating reports for 3D CT scans.

Reality check: Still, only 53% of the reports were clinically acceptable, per the study. Google acknowledged additional studies were necessary to get the tech to the level of expert radiologist reporting — a subject DeDalvo addressed.

  • "I think eventually we're going to get to a place where quality and safety start to meet a bar where we feel like it can be more real-time, but right now most of the experiences are that it still needs a lot of human oversight," she said.

What's next: "One of the exciting opportunities I think that we have right now in understanding the usefulness of these models is...how are we going to develop them and assess quality and safety, almost in the way that we do for physicians," DeSalvo added.

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