Google moves into health research with mobile app, starting with respiratory illnesses like COVID-19

shows the physical exterior of Google's headquarters building
The new Google Health Studies app provides a platform for researchers to reach a large and diverse population so they can better understand human health, while providing the public with greater opportunities to contribute to medical research. (achinthamb/Shutterstock)

Google is upping its focus on health research with a new mobile app that lets smartphone users participate in virtual health studies.

The tech giant announced Wednesday its new Google Health Studies app with an initial focus on respiratory illnesses, including influenza and COVID-19.

Google also launched a study of respiratory illnesses in partnership with Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital to identify how these types of illnesses evolve in communities and differ across risk factors. The study is open to adults with an Android phone in the U.S., and study participants will use the Google Health Studies app to regularly self-report how they feel, what symptoms they may be experiencing, any preventive measures they’ve taken and additional information such as COVID-19 or influenza test results, according to Google Health.

By taking part in this study, volunteers can represent their community in medical research and contribute to global efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the company said.

The app provides a platform for researchers to reach a large and diverse population so they can better understand human health, while providing the public with greater opportunities to contribute to medical research, Jon Morgan, product manager at Google Health, and Paul Eastham, engineering director at Google Research, wrote in a blog post.

RELATED:  Stanford kicks off Apple Heart Study to screen and virtually triage patients with irregular heartbeats

The tech giant is playing catch-up to competitor Apple, which has made strides in remote research efforts since rolling out its first virtual health study in 2017.

Morgan and Eastham said Google Health focused on three principles in building the app: keeping information safe, treating it responsibly and putting participants in control. When participants use the Google Health Studies app, their data are protected with Google’s advanced security. All information is encrypted, and research data are stored securely, the executives said.

Participants also have transparency and control over their personal information and can see which data are being contributed and when and why the information is shared, according to Google Health.

RELATED: Apple and Google launch contact tracing API for COVID-19 exposure

Study data will only be used for the purposes that are explicitly consented to in the research study and will not be sold, shared with advertisers or used to show participants ads, Morgan and Eastham said in the blog post.

"With COVID-19 emerging alongside seasonal respiratory pathogens, research is now needed more than ever to develop more effective treatments and mitigation strategies,” John Brownstein, M.D., professor at Harvard Medical School and chief innovation officer of Boston Children’s Hospital, said. “Google Health Studies provides people with a secure and easy way to take part in medical research, while letting researchers discover novel epidemiological insights into respiratory diseases.”

There are too many barriers for individuals to participate in clinical trials—difficulty with recruitment, geographic barriers that limit interest and participation, the inability to recruit a diverse participation and lack of sustained engagement from participants over time—according to Forrester senior analyst Arielle Trzcinski.  

RELATED: Apple, Google and Amazon are sprinting to battle COVID-19. Here are lessons that can be learned

"Respiratory illnesses have historically been difficult to diagnose over virtual channels, but with the widespread adoption of virtual care by consumers and physicians, we need to develop additional tools to help with diagnosis. The findings and data from these studies could help support effective remote diagnosis in the future," she said.

Google Health's efforts to focus on individual level data are key, she said. "Insights at a ZIP code level are helpful, but not enough. We each look very different from our neighbors—our social situations differ, our physiological makeup is different. We must have greater insight at this level to drive effective diagnosis and treatment," she said.

She added, "While many will look at this as a counterpart to Apple’s Research app efforts, ultimately everyone benefits as we need to continue to increase access to real-world data and real-world evidence.”