Dr. Lily Peng is clear-eyed about what Google is up against when it comes to doing business in the $3.6 trillion healthcare industry.
"Healthcare is not Google's jam," Peng told Business Insider.
"Healthcare is incredibly — well, complicated is an understatement. And there's all these different parts of healthcare," she said. The size and complexity of healthcare make it difficult to crack into, especially when it comes to working together with medical professionals.
"And I think that's a new environment for us," Peng added.
Peng, a 37-year-old physician-scientist, is a product manager for Google Health who's tasked with bringing artificial intelligence tools to life through partnerships with health systems and doctors. Google Health, a roughly 600-person group within Google, formed in 2018 to focus on organizing the world's health information and consolidating the company's many health-related projects.
It's one of many efforts among Big Tech companies to crack the code of US healthcare. From cloud computing to wearables — Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Apple all have teams focused on how their technology can be relevant to drug discovery, clinical care, or doctor-to-doctor communications.
Google's health wing is still finding its footing, as turf wars and trust issues have gotten in the way of its early work. Peng's team of coders and developers is working on a tool that screens for diabetic retinopathy, a complication that can lead to blindness. The work is still early, but it's our best look yet at how Google Health could make money and bring tools to market in the future.
For her work, Peng was named to Business Insider's list of 30 leaders under 40 transforming healthcare.
Peng joined Google in 2013 after being drawn by its 'DNA of creativity'
Throughout high school and college, Peng gravitated towards the idea that you can learn useful things about the world by doing this thing called "research," she said. Then at Stanford University, one of her best friends got Hodgkin's lymphoma, and a clinical trial saved his life, Peng said.
It helped her decide to pursue an MD-PhD program, and a career path that combined tech, research, and medicine. Drawn by its size and "DNA of creativity," Peng said she joined Google in 2013 after stints in venture capital and Doximity, an online networking site for doctors, similar to LinkedIn.
Peng is using Google's AI to solve some of healthcare's stickiest problems, starting in India
Google Health's most advanced AI product, built by Peng's team, is an algorithm that can help diagnose diabetic retinopathy from eye scans.
The blindness it causes is preventable if caught early, but in some regions there aren't enough doctors to perform them, or people don't take it upon themselves to track down specialists for something that's purely theoretical, Peng said.
In India, for example, there's only one eye doctor for every 4,133 patients with diabetes, she said in a TED Talk.
Built with hospitals and businesses in India, which Peng didn't mention by name, the algorithm is basically a diagnostic test. When fed an image from the eye scan, it gives a diagnosis to a healthcare worker. People who're deemed sick by the tool get a referral to a doctor for further treatment.
That means one specialist can see a lot more patients who're likely to really have a problem, and therefore more likely to show up to appointments. And people who aren't sick are routed out of the otherwise crowded pipeline.
The tool is currently approved in Europe and deployed in a few clinics in India.
It's a good example of what AI is good at in healthcare right now, Peng said. It's completing a fairly narrow, straightforward task that physicians have done 10,000 times. Making accurate algorithms for more confusing tasks, like assessing the severity of complex diseases, is farther away, she said.
Getting these tools to work in real clinics, hospitals, and doctors' offices is another issue altogether.
"I don't think we're quite there yet to handle some of these broader questions. That's where there's a lot of hype of like, 'It's going to replace your doctor!' Peng said. "Well, not really. It's going to give your doctor the tools to make good decisions."
A mission to make healthcare 'Googlier'
Google CEO Sundar Pichai has tasked the Google Health team with thinking through how it can improve the world's health. Peng breaks the mission up into two categories: making Google healthier, and making healthcare "Googlier."
The former, in other words making Google products better for people with health concerns, comes easier, she said. The team's recent work to prop up credible information about the pandemic and mental health on the search page, as one example, is kind of Google's bread and butter: distilling huge amounts of customer-driven data and directing users to certain web pages.
The latter category, which involves working hand-in-hand with real doctors in the healthcare system, comes harder to the tech giant.
"How do we give doctors these super powers to help screen patients, diagnose patients, route patients appropriately, etc.?" Peng said.
"It's not just like we can launch one thing and then it scales really well. A lot of times healthcare is just not necessarily scalable," she said. "That's new for Google."