July 10, 2020

VUMC team fills COVID information gaps for web users

For the world’s web users, Vanderbilt University Medical Center is working with Google to address COVID-19 information gaps.

For the world’s web users, Vanderbilt University Medical Center is working with Google to address COVID-19 information gaps.

The folks at Google keep track of any web searches made through that appear to go unanswered by the web. Last year, through a program called Question Hub, the company began collaborating with web publishers in Asia and Africa to post answers to questions that the web apparently had been leaving unanswered.

In April, Google Health began testing Question Hub in the U.S., beginning with unanswered questions about COVID-19.

VUMC works with Google’s sister company, Verily Life Sciences, in a massive precision medicine research initiative sponsored by the federal government, called All of Us. It was in part through this connection that VUMC in April became the first academic institution to begin addressing COVID questions, per Google’s Question Hub workflow, for web users around the world.

In mid-April, Google Health had approached Gordon Bernard, MD, Executive Vice-President for Research at VUMC and program director at the Vanderbilt Institute for Clinical Research (VICTR), which is engaged with the All of Us program.

“This undertaking [with Google] was natural given that, at VICTR, we were already sharply focused on how best to advance understanding of COVID-19. We saw this new consumer health information project as a well-timed opportunity to augment our role in advancing scientific discovery,” said Bernard, the Melinda Bass Owen Professor of Medicine.

Additional academic institutions have since joined VUMC in addressing COVID questions through Google’s Question Hub project.

Becky Jerome, MLIS, MPH, a research services consultant at VICTR, worked on the project with Bernard, Jill Pulley, MBA, VICTR’s executive director, and others.

“We were really excited,” Jerome said, “because even at that time there was so much misinformation about COVID spreading on the web and in the popular media. Even from the government there was lots of conflicting information. When there’s an apparent information gap, it makes it really easy for misinformation to propagate.”

Through Question Hub, Google Health gave the VUMC team access to COVID questions it considered poorly covered by the web.

Taking their pick of which questions to answer, the VICTR team reviewed the scientific literature and formulated answers in consultation with Vanderbilt experts. The team then posted the answers to a VICTR webpage created especially for the project, COVID-19 FAQ for the Community. Finally, the team attached the web addresses (URLs) of the VICTR FAQs to the corresponding questions in the Question Hub data base.

A few examples from the project: Can hydroxychloroquine help treat COVID-19? What cleaning products can be used against SARS-Cov-2/COVID-19? Can zinc help treat COVID-19?

Members of the VICTR team have, as a test, gone to and pasted into the search field, one at a time, the 20 COVID questions to which they’ve posted answers. In a mid-June test, 11 of these queries resulted in so-called “spotlight” listings for VICTR, where questions were answered in full per the VICTR COVID FAQ directly atop the search results, accompanied by a link to the full FAQ from VICTR. Another three of the 20 COVID FAQs from VICTR were included in the first page of results.

“We are excited about the very wide exposure our input received on Google, and these results encouraged us to continue this work,” Bernard said. “In a pandemic, good information is crucial.”