Checking up on Dr. Google: How the search giant has tackled health and wellness

By Jonah Comstock
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Google Health (2008-2011)

GoogleHealthGoogle started working on a personal health record system in late 2006 or early 2007, with future Keas founder Adam Bosworth originally at the helm. Google Health formally launched in 2008, under Zeiger, after a two-month pilot with the Cleveland Clinic. The goal was to create a centralized location for an individual's health information that they could easily share with healthcare providers, insurers, or anyone else they chose. Google announced the shutdown of Google Health in 2011, with full functionality ending January 1, 2012. User data was available to be uploaded for an additional year.

As to why Google Health shut down, Google said it couldn't make the adoption scale beyond quantified self enthusiasts and early adopters.

"There has been adoption among certain groups of users like tech-savvy patients and their caregivers, and more recently fitness and wellness enthusiasts," product manager Brown wrote at the time, "but we haven’t found a way to translate that limited usage into widespread adoption in the daily health routines of millions of people."

Google Health continues to be evoked in discussions of PHRs, which are still struggling to catch on in the mainstream. MobiHealthNews's Brian Dolan also tackled the question of why Google Health failed in a 2011 post-mortem, rounding up 10 possible reasons from digital health thinkers.

Google Flu Trends (2008-present)

flu trendsGoogle Flu Trends is a prime example of big data in health care. Launched in November 2008, Google Flu Trends uses de-identified, aggregated search data related to the flu to map where and when outbreaks are occurring. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks the flu also, by having doctors and patients at certain hospitals and clinics send information to the CDC. But using search data, Google is able to track flu trends more quickly and fairly accurately: Shortly after Flu Trends launched it predicted a spike in flu cases two weeks before the CDC did.

In the wake of the success of Flu Trends, Google turned its attention to another disease as well, creating Google Dengue Trends to track Dengue Fever in Bolivia, Brazil, India, Indonesia and Singapore. Dengue trends launched in May 2011.

At the beginning of this year, however, Google Flu Trends became something of a poster child for big data gone bad. After years of matching the CDC data closely, Google reported twice the number of outbreaks at the end of 2012 as the CDC did. Although Google never explained the glitch, experts speculated that increased media coverage of the flu introduced false positives into the search data.

"Several researchers suggest that the problems may be due to widespread media coverage of this year’s severe US flu season, including the declaration of a public-health emergency by New York state last month," Nature magazine reported. "The press reports may have triggered many flu-related searches by people who were not ill."

Despite the hiccup, Google Flu Trends remains one of Google's most high-profile health initiatives.

Google MyTracks and other tracking efforts (2009-present)

Google MyTracks launched in 2009 as an Android app that could track a user's movement on Google Maps using a phone's GPS. Shortly thereafter, in 2010, Google made the app open-source. Now MyTracks, one of Google's top free health and fitness apps, can track a user's path, speed, distance, and elevation for walking, running, or biking. While recording, a user can view data live, annotate his or her path, or hear audio updates on his or her progress. It syncs with heart rate monitors from Zephyr and Polar. It also integrates with other Google products, allowing users to view their data in Google Maps, Google Fusion Tables and Google Docs.

MyTracks is not Google's only venture into activity tracking. In late 2012, Google quietly added activity tracking to Google Now, an Android-only app that uses Google services to smartly deliver users various kinds of information to help them throughout their day – without them having to ask. The feature delivers a monthly activity report of time spent walking or cycling, measured passively by the phone itself, and displays it alongside the previous month’s data for comparison.

Finally, possibly as a response to Apple's M7 co-processor, Google added a low-power background step counter to the latest version of the Android operating system just this month.