Google launches a new medical app in the EU

Photo: Google

Millions of people turn to Google’s web search box for help to figure out what's wrong with their health - both physical and mental. This is usually not a good idea, but now, Google is preparing to launch an app that uses image recognition algorithms to provide more expert and personalised help at least when it comes to dermatological problems.

A brief demo at the company’s developer conference last month showed the service suggesting several possible skin conditions based on uploaded photos.In particular, the design shown in the demo requires a person to snap three photos of their blemish from different angles and distances. The user can optionally add information such as the body part affected and how long they’ve had the problem. Tapping “Submit” zips the images off to Google.

The app then displays “Suggested conditions,” showing possible conditions illustrated by images. Tapping on one brings up a list of key information such as symptoms, contagiousness, and treatment options. Google says the app was trained on “hundreds of thousands of skin images” and can identify 288 conditions, including skin cancers, covering roughly 90 percent of common dermatology web searches.

This is not something mind-blowing or new - so far machines have matched or outperformed expert dermatologists in studies in which algorithms and doctors scrutinise images from past patients. But there’s little evidence from clinical trials deploying such technology, and no AI image analysis tools are approved for dermatologists to use in the US.

As WIRED outlines, Google’s new app isn’t clinically validated yet either, even though the company’s AI prowess and recent buildup of its health care division make its AI dermatology app notable. Still, the skin service will start small- and far from its home turf and largest market in the US.

But service is not likely to analyse American skin blemishes anytime soon. At the developer conference, Google’s chief health officer, Karen DeSalvo, said the company aims to launch what it calls "the dermatology assist tool" only in the European Union as soon as the end of this year. A video of the app suggesting that a mark on someone’s arm could be a mole featured a caption saying it was an approved medical device in the EU. The same note added a caveat: “Not available in the US.”

The company’s America-not-first strategy highlights how it can be easier to win approval for medical apps in Europe than in the US. In particular, Google says its skin app has been approved “CE marked as a Class I medical device in the EU,” meaning it can be sold in the bloc and other countries recognising that standard. A Google spokesperson, however, said the company would like to offer the service in the US but didn’t have a timeline on when it might cross the Atlantic.

That flips the traditional Silicon Valley view of Europe as a red-tape-strewn landscape hostile to new ideas. Between 2012 and 2018, Facebook did not offer face-recognition suggestions in the EU after an audit by Ireland’s data regulator forced the company to deactivate the feature and delete its stockpile of European faceprints. Since 2014, Google has been required to allow EU citizens to request that old links about them be scrubbed from the company’s search engine under the “right to be forgotten.”

"The company would have faced relatively few hurdles to secure that clearance," says Hugh Harvey, managing director at Hardian Health, a digital health consultancy in the UK to WIRED.

Google has faced practical challenges when deploying other promising AI health software outside the lab. In 2018 the company began testing a system capable of detecting eye disease in people with diabetes in clinics in Thailand. In 2020 the company published a study on the rollout that said the system had rejected more than 20 percent of patient images due to problems like variable lighting and practical constraints on nurses.

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