Times have certainly been turbulent for those working on health and wellness projects at Google.
The tech giant’s Google Health division underwent two reorgs this summer, the latter of which resulted in department chief David Feinberg, M.D., jumping ship to lead health IT company Cerner and the Google Health team being scattered across the rest of the company’s health adjacent projects.
Internal memos and comments from the company suggested Google was winding back its siloed health approach to instead bake health-focused capabilities into its various existing business lines—surfacing verified health information on YouTube or providing care navigation help through Google Maps, for example.
Despite the organizational shuffle, Chief Health Officer Karen DeSalvo, M.D., says the company has done anything but scale back its health efforts.
“Our overall goal … is to help billions around the world be healthy—and that is a big, audacious goal,” DeSalvo said during a Sunday keynote at HLTH 2021 in Boston.
“I want people to understand—from the moment I walked in the door, my remit, my work, has been not only to think about how we’re going to help the healthcare sector but what are we going to do to see that there’s authoritative information on all of our platforms,” she said. “It’s quite frankly one of the things that’s been most exciting to me about the company because we know that we can reach literally billions of people and give them good information to help them make better choices about their health or to navigate their care journey.”
DeSalvo said her team now guides Google on the health components of its authoritative information services, its regulated medical products and its employee health and safety. She noted that the last area has been a particular focus for her over the course of the pandemic, “though so much of what we’ve learned about education around testing or vaccines or how to do better forecasting has been applicable to the work we’ve done outside.”
The broader, complementary strategy does make quantifying the successes of her team a bit less straightforward.
Some areas, like wearables or the provider-focused Care Studio suite, can be judged by sales numbers or user feedback. Consumer health messaging initiatives can similarly be tracked by webpage impressions, while more complex projects like health screening AI can be proven to healthcare stakeholders via the industry’s various quality measurement tools.
However, DeSalvo said her team’s mandate at Google isn’t so much driving profits through singular products or services. Rather, it’s driving health improvements for as many people as possible to achieve the downstream benefits of a healthy customer base.
“Our get up every morning, raison d'être, is impact. It’s helping billions around the world be healthier,” she said. “It’s built into the DNA of the company and the way we think about it, which, going back to that iteration we’re on now, [means] it’s not just one product area or one department. We really are thinking about how we weave health into all parts of our business, because if we do that it’s good for the user, which is good for customers, which is good for business. It just makes sense to us.”
That emphasis on scale is a boon for DeSalvo, who comes from a medical and public health background. Providers and public agencies only have so much reach into an individual’s life, she explained, limiting the impact they have on health education and decision-making.
Those limitations are stark in relation to Google’s ubiquitous platforms, which two years ago offered an opportunity that DeSalvo couldn’t refuse.
“We’re with people all across their life flow, when they’re making decisions about what food to buy or where to exercise or when they’re trying to learn more about whether or not they should get a flu shot,” she said. “We can do those health things, but also we have programs around education and economic opportunity. This is, for me then, this marrying together of great care and addressing social determinants of health and equity all in one company.”