Google announces Cloud Healthcare API to unlock health data

Using open standards, vendor seeks to address industry’s interoperability challenges, says Eric Schmidt.

Search engine giant Google on Monday announced a new cloud-based application programming interface aimed at addressing the interoperability challenges that continue to dog the healthcare industry.

Google’s Cloud Healthcare API is meant to extract data from electronic health records and “other proprietary data” by using DICOM, FHIR, and HL7 protocols, according to Eric Schmidt, technical advisor and former executive chairman of Alphabet, the parent company of Google.

The goal is to free up the flow of information leading to actionable insights from artificial intelligence and machine learning that can improve health outcomes.

“Prediction allows a clinician to intervene earlier,” Schmidt said during his opening keynote on Monday at the HIMSS18 conference in Las Vegas. “We have physicians inside of our company who believe that if these algorithms for prediction work we can predict outcomes in the ER, for example, 18 to 24 hours earlier than any other observational system because of the deep analysis that can now be done against the historic data.”

Currently available in an early access release for a group of customers and partners, Google plans a wider roll out of the Cloud Healthcare API over the next year. Stanford School of Medicine is part of the early access launch.

“Open standards are critical to healthcare interoperability as well as for enabling biomedical research,” said Somalee Datta, Stanford School of Medicine Director of Research IT, in a written statement. “We have been using the Google Cloud Genomics API for a long time and are very excited to see Google Cloud expanding its offerings to include the new Cloud Healthcare API. The ability to combine interoperability with Google Cloud’s scalable analytics will have a transformative impact on our research community.”

“This is really hard. It’s really humbling and it’s really complicated,” Schmidt acknowledged in his keynote. “But, if we all work together, we can really save lives at a scale that is unimaginable because of the impact of these technologies.”

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Yet, this initiative isn’t Google’s first foray into the healthcare market.

Robert Wachter, MD, chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, recounted for a HIMSS18 audience on Monday how when he was on the Google Health advisory council in 2007 the vendor effectively bit off more than it could chew when it targeted healthcare.

Wachter, who is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine's Computer Age, said the company’s attitude was “we’re going to revolutionize healthcare because we’re Google—we’ll figure it out.”

Ultimately, he said Google realized that healthcare was “too complicated” for the tech behemoth and Schmidt—who served as CEO from 2001 to 2011—shut it down. Despite that earlier false start, Wachter contends that the vendor is currently better situated to tackle the industry’s challenges. “Google was trying to build electronic health records,” he explained. “It was simply too big a lift. Now, all the data is digital.”

Schmidt emphasized the importance of EHRs in his keynote. “Ten years ago, they didn’t exist in the form that we know today,” he added. “Before that, it was impossible to get the healthcare data. I know because we tried to build a product to do that and it didn’t succeed.”

However, this time around, Schmidt concludes that “this is fundamentally a search problem—and, Google is very good at search problems.”

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