Google’s Helpouts could be the company’s secret weapon to take on healthcare

Are you in over your head with a home improvement project, or with a tricky recipe? Do you really need someone more knowledgeable to take a look, right now? Google (S GOOG) hopes that you’ll turn to its new real-time advice platform dubbed Helpouts in these kinds of situations. Helpouts offer users the ability to search for and connect with experts via video chats — and one day, you may even use it to talk to your doctor.

Google first announced Helpouts in July, and will launch this week with 1,000 pre-screened experts from a variety of fields, including cooking, home improvement, technology and fashion and beauty. The service will launch in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, but a Google spokesperson told me that the company hopes to eventually make Helpouts available everywhere.

Helpouts is powered by Google’s Hangouts video chat platform, and as such uses the same technology also used for Hangouts, including Google’s VP8 video codec. However, the company decided to turn Helpouts into a stand-alone offering rather than a feature within Hangouts, and also launch a separate Android app. Representatives said Monday that they’d like to launch on as many devices and platforms as possible down the road, but Apple’s policy to take a cut out of e-commerce facilitated through apps running on iOS would make it difficult for Google to bring the service to iPhones and iPads in its current form.

Here’s Google’s Helpouts promo video:


Google is currently only admitting pre-screened providers, but may open the platform up further in the future. Providers can set their own price for these one-on-one chats and charge either by the minute, through a flat fee, or decide to make their services available for free. Google takes a 20 percent cut out of those fees, which are collected through Google Wallet, with one notable exception: Providers of health-related Helpouts initially don’t have to give Google a cut at all. Google representatives said during a press briefing Monday that the company was evaluating other pricing models for the health sector.

Speaking of healthcare, Helpouts are HIPAA compliant, meaning that the company adheres by privacy regulations in place to protect patient data. Google has already signed up the relatively small One Medical Group as a health care provider to offer advice through the system, but the real killer app could be to make Helpouts available to a large HMO. (Google Ventures led a $30 million funding round in One Medical back in March.) Health care providers like Kaiser already rely on phone-based remote consultations — adding video to that has the potential to prevent a lot of unnecessary emergency room visits, as well as catch symptoms that need in-person attention sooner.

Google VP of Engineering Udi Manber didn’t want to commit to any future features, but he did mention that Google intends to build APIs for Helpouts that could one day power a whole set of applications powered by Helpouts. And once those apps become available, I’d bet that we are going to hear a whole lot more about Google’s plans to take on healthcare.