Google wants to give 'superpowers' to clinicians. Today it's helping them find hotel rooms

Sundar Pichai/Google
Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet, said in a March blog post the company's DeepMind division is helping to advance COVID-related science and research. (Google)

Google made some changes to its search and map tools to help medical staff quickly find free or discounted hotel rooms. 

The feature, launched Thursday, enables healthcare professionals and essential workers to look for hotels on Google Search, Maps, or Hotel Search and filter results to show properties that have special policies for COVID-19 responders.

For example, users can search for “hotels for essential workers in New York” or “hotels in New York” and narrow the results using a new filter for “COVID-19 responder rooms.”

The idea for the new feature on Google search and map tools came from employees in Google's U.K. office who heard that National Health System (NHS) workers were struggling to find hotel accommodations, Arvind Kannan, product manager at Google Hotels told FierceHealthcare.

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Many healthcare workers who treat COVID-19 patients are concerned about the risk of exposing their families to the virus and prefer to stay in nearby hotels during the pandemic. While many hotels are offering special accommodations to essential workers, it can be time-consuming for COVID-19 responders to find these specific hotels.

"The idea started out as a UK initiative but we realized that we can apply Google's scale to it. The problem is global in nature," he said.

a screen shot from a smartphone showing hotel search results
COVID-19 responder hotel search results (Google)
It's part of Google's approach to using its search engine capabilities and Internet platforms to make it easier for people to find important information during a global health pandemic.

"The biggest role that we can play is to help people to find useful information. We recognize this is a fluid situation and we are trying to gather information that is most relevant to people and provide it in an accessible and global fashion," Kannan said.

Karen DeSalvo, M.D., chief health officer at Google's health division, sees the technology company playing a larger role in public health efforts.

"Billions of people come to us for information. As a former public health officer, having that kind of reach to give people information to help save their lives is an extraordinary opportunity," said DeSalvo, who was speaking at a virtual clinical informatics conference this week hosted by the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA).

DeSalvo, a former Obama administration official, joined Google in October. She has a long track record in public health, including Health Commissioner for the City of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, acting assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC).

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Through its Search function, the company provides information about access to mental health services, how to find telehealth resources, tips to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and accurate information about the virus from health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

"It's a constant challenge to take down harmful information. We partner with health authorities to do that and we've stepped up it during COVID," DeSalvo said.

The company also launched a website that uses anonymous location data collected from users of Google products and services to show the level of social distancing taking place in various locations.

The Community Mobility Reports chart movement trends over time by geography and across locations such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential.

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"One of the things we heard a lot from public health colleagues is that they need to know if shelter-in-place policies are working," she said, noting that the company leveraged an existing Google tool that displays table availability at restaurants and applied that to community mobility to create the reports.

Google worked with Apple to develop digital contact tracing technology that can be used by public health agencies to track COVID-19. The exposure notification application programming interface (API) the companies developed will now be available to states, public health agencies and governments to build apps that will notify people via smartphone if they've come into contact with someone with the coronavirus.

Broadly, the company wants to apply its ability to make information useful and accessible to help medical professionals and address specific healthcare problems, DeSalvo said.

"How can we apply artificial intelligence, machine learning, and computer vision to improve care delivery by giving superpowers to clinicians, doctors, and others," she said.

That could mean designing better tools to assist physicians with reading a mammogram or predicting who might develop kidney failure.

"This is a company that wants to understand health and is hungry to think about the right levers to pull where can we be useful and where we should hang back," DeSalvo said.