On Wednesday, 23 August, a surprise partnership was announced between The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the tech company Google. In response to what has been described as an epidemic of clinical depression in the United States, the Google search engine will now respond to mobile device users searching on the term “clinical depression” by providing a direct link to the PHQ-9 questionnaire, which is used by medical professionals as an initial evaluation for clinical depression. One in five Americans will experience at least one episode of major or clinical depression, in their lifetimes. According to the NIMH, suicide is the second leading cause of death in young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 in the U.S.
The link will read, “Check if you’re clinically depressed,” and following the link will bring you directly to the PHQ-9, or Patient Health Questionnaire, which has nine questions. Most questions begin, “Over the past two weeks, have you been bothered by any of the following problems?” followed by such issues as “Little interest or pleasure in doing things,” and “Trouble falling or staying asleep.”
Mary Giliberti, CEO of NAMI, has stated that she hopes the partnership with Google will encourage sufferers to seek help. Clinical depression is a treatable condition, she says, but only about half the sufferers receive treatment, Giliberti pointed out, and generally only after six to eight years.
Google spokesperson Susan Cadrecha is also optimistic about the potential of this partnership to help clinically depressed individuals get the help they need: “By making PHQ-9 easily accessible in the Clinical Depression Knowledge Panel, we hope that will help provide useful and insightful information to spur deeper research on the Web or to help you have more in-depth conversations with your doctor.”
However analysts have expressed concerns. For one, there is always danger inherent in self-diagnosis without medical expertise; the hope is that users will utilize the information to take their concerns directly to a health professional. The other concern is that of privacy. Google, as part of its business operations, stores a lot of data on individual users. Legitimately, some are concerned that information entered into the PHQ-9 form will be retained in some form, violating HIPAA guidelines.
Google has tried to reassure users that information entered this way will remain private: “The privacy and security of our users is of the utmost importance,” Google’s Cadrecha said in an interview with TechNewsWorld. “We recognize that this information is sensitive and private, and Google will not store your responses or your results,” she said.
However, analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group points out that “In the past, Google has been lax with regard to oversight,” and thus privacy remains a matter of trust, and “whether management actually knows what the engineers who have set this up actually did.” Enderle pointed out that data may be retained whether or not there was intent on the part of management. Michael Jude, a research manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan, points out that “[a]t some level, everything’s stored for some period of time.” He adds, “Google is asking us to trust them not to store anything long term. However, the act of seeing this data lets it build profiles of users.”
Google’s parent company Alphabet already collects some data on consumers’ health through its Verily Life Sciences division, formerly Google Life Sciences. Project Baseline, a longitudinal observational study was launched in 2014 with the goal of collecting, organizing, and analyzing phenotypic health data from 10,000 participants over the course of four years.