One Medical Group Talks Google Helpouts for Patient Videoconferencing
By Alex Panagiotopoulos
If you’re one of those healthcare companies that needs to innovate on a tight budget (i.e., all of them), I always say “curate before you create.” One area that is ripe for opportunity: patient videoconferencing. Building a HIPAA-compliant, user-friendly solution that works with the dozens of available devices and platforms would be prohibitively time consuming and expensive, and the costs would make it a hard sell to management. Luckily for us, an easy-to-implement solution already exists: Google Helpouts.
Google Helpouts is a pay-to-use videoconferencing platform that uses technology from the similarly named Google Hangouts. If you’ve used Google Hangouts, you’ll know that it easily runs on a variety of platforms, is intuitive to use, and doesn’t require a lot of setup. If you have a laptop less than five years old, or a tablet, or a smartphone, you can use Helpouts.
Helpouts was launched late last year as a platform for Google users to “get help from an expert over live video.” By searching for terms like “doing my taxes,” or “guitar lesson,” users can make appointments with any number of vetted and rated experts who charge various per-minute rates for their services. Google handles the payment via Google Wallet, takes a small cut, and passes the rest to the expert.
One of the most interesting areas of Helpouts is its healthcare section. Google tapped the innovative primary care practice One Medical Group (OMG) to pilot its HIPAA-compliant Helpouts. OMG was a prime candidate for offering video consultations to patients, since it already conducts consultations via instant message, email, and phone. For more, we asked OMG’s CEO Dr. Tom X. Lee a few questions:
In addition to video conferencing, what other consultation options do you offer to patients?
Our providers care for patients where and when they're needed. This has included phone and email consultations since we first opened and, more recently, a mobile app that helps people with common ailments.
What concerns or drawbacks were there at first to adding video to the mix?
Although I wouldn't call them drawbacks, adding video capabilities created a new set of details we had to address during a visit. For example, does the provider look professional? Does the patient prefer not to be seen on video? And, clinically, what illnesses could be better managed with video capabilities?
Do you believe the ability to videoconference is a differentiator for potential patients who are shopping for a provider?
The broader differentiator is that we allow patients to get care in several ways beyond the office visit, depending on what’s most convenient for them. In some cases, a video visit might be a great option for them, but in other cases our “Treat Me Now” app might make more sense.
How much education did you need to provide to get providers up to speed on how to run Helpouts?
It was pretty straightforward – the platform is relatively easy to use from the provider perspective. Google provided training on Helpouts, and we developed our own internal training on some of the logistical nuances of conducting a video visit.
What technical difficulties, if any, have you encountered on the patient side? Or on your side?
Just like with any Internet-based video chat technology, there can sometimes be bandwidth issues depending on the patient’s set-up, but those kinds of issues have been pretty minimal. We're focused on delivering quality patient care in an accessible, affordable manner and believe this is consistent with that goal.
Now that OMG has already provided a proof of concept for how video consultations can work, it’s time for other organizations to try them out too. Since insurance reimbursement for patient videoconferencing is still tricky in many states, this can be a great tool for services like nutritional and diabetes counseling that are often offered for cash.
Since it costs nothing to set up, Google Helpouts is a great, blue-chip innovation for healthcare organizations to try in a limited pilot. If patients don’t adopt it, then at least it didn’t cost much. If it does work, then it’s time to look into how to further expand videoconferencing offerings to meet additional patient needs.