Google is betting on telehealth as the next frontier for its natural language processing (NLP) and translation services. The stakes are high: On August 24, 2020, Google Cloud announced a USD 100m investment and multiyear partnership with US telehealth platform Amwell, which filed for an IPO on the same day.
Amwell will now migrate its video capabilities to Google Cloud. According to the press release on the investment, “Google Cloud and Amwell see an opportunity to improve patient and clinician telehealth experiences through technologies that […] provide automated language translation services.”
Uniquely American Telemedicine
Founded in 2006 as American Well by Israeli brothers Ido and Ray Schoenberg, Amwell’s telehealth platform connects healthcare providers with patients who have “acute care needs that don’t require a trip to the emergency room.”
Users can browse services by speciality or practice name and only see services from providers licensed in their state. (Amwell Medical Group providers also see patients on Amwell partner platforms, including major health systems and hospitals across the US.)
Amwell’s selling points reflect this moment in American healthcare history. The company boasts 24/7/365 service; patients without insurance can pay privately for services; all participating physicians are Board-certified; and — especially attractive during the coronavirus pandemic — “no more germy waiting rooms.”
“During your appointment, you continue to speak in your preferred language to your physician, while cloud-based artificial intelligence (AI) provides live, translated captioning of the conversation” — Amwell elevator pitch
Prior to Google’s investment, Amwell already had partnerships with some big names, including CVS Health, Walgreens, and Philips. That said, medical care provided remotely has its limits.
For patients they treat via Amwell, physicians cannot order lab tests, prescribe certain medications, or fill out complex medical documents that require in-person evaluation. Although the company aims to soon make its services available worldwide, Amwell currently only operates in the US.
The platform’s linguistic offerings are similarly restricted. Amwell’s website states that “all virtual doctor visits provider groups offer some Spanish-speaking physicians, although not in all states.”
Alternative to VRI?
An August 24, 2020 Google Cloud blog post described how Google Cloud might be integrated into the Amwell platform: “A conversational chatbot agent is immediately available to assist you, in your preferred language, by asking about your symptoms and the reason for your visit, and provides this information to your physician before she enters your virtual exam room. During your appointment, you continue to speak in your preferred language to your physician, while cloud-based artificial intelligence (AI) provides live, translated captioning of the conversation.”
Citing an SEC-mandated quiet period, Amwell declined to comment on how it has supported patients with limited English proficiency up until now; so it is unclear whether the company has ever used virtual remote interpreting (VRI).
The coronavirus pandemic has, so far, been a boon to VRI providers, particularly those operating in healthcare settings. Cloudbreak Health, whose offerings include its proprietary Martti system for remote interpreting, raised USD 10m in late February 2020, just as the pandemic was on an upswing globally.
Minutes billed by Stratus Video, meanwhile, exceeded pre-Covid-19 levels by late June 2020, according to owner AMN Healthcare’s Q2 2020 results (SlatorPro). And LanguageLine is reportedly “growing dramatically” from increased demand for VRI and the US government’s emergency March 2020 expansion of Medicare coverage for telehealth services.