Google Updates Health OneBox – Step in the right direction?

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By Carl Turner, VP, Research Analytics Director, Palio (@leftyrightbrain)

Back in August 2009 Google debuted its Health OneBox feature. The feature modified Google search by placing disease state or condition descriptions provided by the National Institute of Health at the top of search results whenever disease state or conditions are searched. On Monday, Google updated its Health OneBox feature by extending its reach to medications. The latest modification ensures that a NIH description of a medication will appear at the top of search results whenever the name of a branded or generic prescription medication is searched on Google.

Some in the industry (including John Mack, @pharmaguy) assert that the medication-related NIH search results compete with paid pharmaceutical ads. Furthermore, they have characterized the move by Google as one that is mainly focused on increasing revenue for pharmaceutical advertising because now drug companies will have to increase online advertising to maintain share of voice on search engines. I disagree with these perspectives and believe that the new feature demonstrates Google’s commitment to relevant search. Additionally, I think the change will have a positive impact on patients, physicians, and the pharmaceutical industry.

To learn more about Google’s Health OneBox feature I submitted several questions to a Google spokesperson. Here’s what Google’s spokesperson had to say about the changes to the feature (CT – that’s me, Carl Turner; GS is Google Spokesperson):

CT: Can you give me a quick overview of the history of Google’s Health OneBox feature?

GS: “We first launched our health search feature in August of 2009. You can read more on this blog post from Search Engine Land.”

CT: The latest update to Google’s Health OneBox expands that feature to medications. So now when you type in the name of a medication (brandedor generic) into a Google search bar a short description of the medication provided by the National Institute of Health appears at the top of the search. What motivated this update? Was it in any way in response to pharmaceutical industry requests for having the relevance of health-related search improved?

GS: “We’re always iterating in search. Health information is an important and popular category of information users are looking for. Our goal is to get people to straightforward, useful information as quickly as possible. ”

CT: How do you think this change will impact users?

GS: “The medications search feature helps users more quickly find information about common generic and brand name drugs.”

CT: How do you hope that pharmaceutical companies will view this change?

GS: “As always were focused on delivering the most relevant information for our users. In many cases, we anticipate that users will read the information from the NIH and then continue on to browse other sources on the web. Websites that provide this information will still appear in search results as they do today. The medications search feature is an addition to the page, and users can still find the usual top ten results for each query.”

Here are some reasons why this small change might have a bigger impact than would be expected¢‚Ǩ¬¶

The internet is overrun by misinformation on disease states, conditions, and treatments. It is becoming more difficult for patients to determine whether health information is accurate. Irrelevant and inaccurate search results contribute to health misinformation. Some patients become frustrated and disengage from using the internet as a reliable source for health information. Others gather information about health or medications via internet, but are unaware that they have armed themselves with misinformation.

Based on the misinformation collected online, some ePatients confront and challenge their physician’s treatment decisions. Misleading health information can contribute to patient non-compliance and strain the physician-patient relationship.

Physicians and patients aren’t alone, even the pharmaceutical industry is frustrated and negatively impacted by the wealth of health misinformation online. Pharmaceutical companies have a hard time controlling the spread of product-related misinformation. Despite the fact that misunderstandings can balloon into pervasive perceptions that damage brands, pharmaceutical companies are limited in their ability to respond to misleading information online.

Although Google is in the business of selling ads, I do not believe that the latest Health OneBox update was motivated solely by profit. During the FDA’s public hearing addressing social media and the internet and in countless conferences on social media, the industry has challenged the FDA and Google to improve the relevance of health related search. Google stepped up to the challenge by prioritizing accurate health and medication information and moving it to the top of search. As far as paid advertising goes, I don’t think that the NIH descriptions (in their current form) pose a major risk to the marketing of pharmaceutical products. I think most marketers would rather have the general public review truthful information than false or misleading information about their products. In addition, think about the positive impact this new feature will have on small pharmaceutical products who do not benefit from large digital budgets. Overall, Health OneBox does not eliminate the health misinformation problem, but you have to admit it’s a step in the right direction.

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