Is ‘Google MD’ a bad idea?

Apparently Google feels it’s difficult to find medical information online. A week ago (february 10, 2015) Google announced on their blog that they’ll start providing health information in their knowledge graph. In an excellent example of storytelling techniques, product manager Prem Ramaswami tells us why we need this and why this is a good idea. I’d love to believe this. But I don’t.

The idea behind the knowledge graph
It is one of Google’s ambitions to no longer be a search and retrieve platform, but a knowledge base. So basically a search engine and Wikipedia combined. The knowledge graph is the tool to do just that: not only providing you the information you were looking for, but also stuff you did not know you were looking for. “You’re looking for information on subject A, which could mean something technical or cultural and hey, you might also dig some info on this and this. You know what, here’s a video on other stuff that was made by the same guy.” I’m sure your get the picture and yeah, that’s real useful.

Translating the knowledge graph to medical information
The great Master of Science did not create all information equal. And not information is equally suited for a knowledge graph. When it comes to stuff like architecture, Genghis Khan or caterpillars (did you mean biology or heavy machinery?) a knowledge graph will be helpful or, at the very least, not harmful. But for medical information, things are quite different. For one thing there are continuous developments and discoveries being made and an ongoing discussion on what these mean and how they translate for medical professionals and patients. There are a lot of ethical, practical and fundamental choices to be made. If you are seeking out medical information, it would be wise to consult multiple online sources to get a good idea. Or if you must rely on one source, choose one that is as independent as possible.

Treatment and prevention
Who gets to decide what information is best, or even correct? Google says it consults their own doctors and ‘the Mayo clinic’ (where Eric Schmidt is a member of the board of trustees, just a fun fact, no conspiracy theory) which could mean anyone from an entire medical staff to their secretarial stuff to look for typos. And since it’s only one organisation, can we be sure that there is sufficient debate on what information is or is not given? Information provided may be correct, but is it complete. Or is there too much? Is the public referred to the best professional care in their own area when needed or encouraged to find more information from other websites? Will enough attention be given to preventing illness? Will information focus on ‘what to do’ or on ‘what it is’? Given the enormous power of Google, these matters are more important now than for other sources.

Google’s gain is… whose loss?
If Google is keeping the public away from online sources, not only are they keeping the public away from them, they are also keeping information from these organisations. If many people are looking for information about, for example, a sore throat, you’d know something was wrong, there might be a flu epidemic, MD’s in the area should be warned. But with the health knowledge graph, only Google might know.

The money question
First of all, providing medical information is a lot of difficult, specialised, hard work. The kind of work that costs a lot of money. Even commercial organizations that mean well still have to make money. And there is still a lot more money to be made by knowing about people’s health. Or by directing them to medication. Or an insurance. And inevitably, at some point in the future Google will also face difficult financial times like declining growth and falling profitability. How long would it then take Google to put two and tow together? We know all this stuff which we learned at high costs and we can sell this knowledge for a lot of profit to keep our shareholders happy save employees jobs. Google does not deny they view this as a potentional future moneymaker, as can be read in this article in the Guardian: “Google claims that its health information presented in the new feature is at least accurate and it will not be directly monetised.” I’d like to emphasize ‘directly’.

Privacy issues
Which brings us to the privacy issues. It’s been a long time since anyone sensible thought our privacy was safe with the tech-giants. If Google uses your search-queries, your location, the YouTube videos you watch and the contents of your e-mail to serve you the ads that you want to see (as a service to you, dear user!), then they will use the information you click on in their knowledge graph as well. At the very least, they will store it. And so a company that probably does not believe it is evil to sell other companies information on your athlete’s foot or gonorrhoea will actually be in possession of even more information on that.

So, is it a good idea?
Google’s knowledge graph will provide sound information. It will probably be up to date and will not give you any strange ideas about common diseases like a cold. My concern is for less common conditions, on referring the public to real life medical professionals and prevention. Google admits their knowledge graph is not a replacement, but come on, we all know a lot of people will use it for just that.
My other great concern is for privacy. Google does not have a good reputation when it comes to that. I for one, would not be comfortable with a company like Google knowing even more about what medical information I look for than I already know. That’s knowledge that would be too ease and profitable to take advantage off.

So no, I don’t think it’s a good idea. But if you disagree, I’d love to heard your arguments.


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