Alumni Making a Difference

Tipping the Balance

Von Nguyen, M.D., on enabling health care delivery for the masses at Google

The first surgeon Von Nguyen, M.D., remembers seeing was on TV. It was the mid-1970s, and the U.S. was looking to extricate itself from the Vietnam War. Across the country the popular Army medical sitcom M*A*S*H had just entered its fourth season on CBS. Tuning in with his family who had arrived in the U.S. as refugees from South Vietnam, Dr. Nguyen wanted to grow up to be Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt, the quick-witted physician with a mustache and a penchant for practical jokes.

Von Nguyen with a background of circles having Google's brand colors.
Illustration by Jay Caldwell/UT Southwestern Medical Center; Source image: Provided by Von Nguyen

As he grew older, his dreams of making a difference through health care shifted from surgery to working with entire populations through public health. He attended Medical School at UT Southwestern Medical Center and graduated in 2005, heading next to Columbia University Medical Center for residency training before working as a primary caregiver in Boston. But it was after taking a post monitoring outbreaks in places like Sierra Leone and Kenya for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that he finally felt like he was contributing at a global scale.

Today, Dr. Nguyen is the Clinical Lead for Population Health at Google, where he works on health applications for consumer products, machine learning, and cloud solutions. For him, it’s an opportunity to impact lives at the scale he dreamed about, and contribute to the tech giant’s Open Health Stack, a developer toolkit for building next-generation digital health solutions that encourages data standards and interoperability.

From his seat at the table helping shape technologies that may one day be fundamental to how doctors treat patients, he looked back on how he’s grown as a physician and why scale drives so much of his health care philosophy.

What’s life been like since graduation?

There’s a saying that the last place you trained is where you end up living, and that last place for me was Atlanta. I’ve been there about a decade, including working for the CDC.

Working with people chasing the latest outbreaks around the world gave me insight into how small changes in health care and prevention can have big impacts across large populations. I love being a doctor, but I always wanted to help more patients than I realistically could seeing patients in a hospital or private practice. The lack of scale can be disheartening.

I’ve taken everything from my career in public health and epidemiology – where you’re investigating outbreaks like I did for the CDC – and brought that to Google where we’re talking about helping hundreds of millions of people using technologies that didn’t exist 20 or 30 years ago.

Over your career, how have you evolved as a doctor?

During my residency, I was more concerned about getting enough hours of sleep than I was about solving technology and population health issues. Since then, I have been deliberately thinking about health care and technology from a policy perspective.

A common complaint of doctors is the inability to get the information you need to make the right decisions at the right time. In the United States, the average clinic visit is about 20 minutes. In parts of the developing world, sometimes it’s even less. A doctor needs access to be able to see all of a patient’s medical history at once instead of having to flip through three screens or toggle between multiple programs.

Standardizing health care technology and improving the ways that systems work together are super-basic concepts. But if you think about how much a doctor has do right now – while with a patient – it drives us crazy. So, what we’re trying to do now through Google is provide a scalable foundation on which everybody can build solutions that talk to each other.

When did you first realize you could make an impact?

I spent a lot of time in the Intensive Care Unit at Columbia, because that’s just what you do at quaternary care centers. You become really, really good at hospital care.

But there was always a question in my mind. When you see a 15-bed ICU, on any given day there were probably 100 doctors and health care providers charged with taking care of those patients. I wondered if that was the best use of 100 people. That intersects with this idea of public health and thinking about being able to scale impact and invest in resources on the front end, so that people avoid the ICU entirely.

What inspires your work?

A big motivation for me is increasing access to health care by leveraging new technologies that can be deployed in communities similar to where I was born. All my work to this point is driven in part by a desire to return some of the opportunities I’ve been given – to pay it forward.

After fleeing Vietnam, my family ended up in a refugee camp in Arkansas before moving to Orange – a small town in southeast Texas. For my parents, leaving their home with an infant in tow must have been a terrifying experience. Global health work involves large populations, and when I think about inequalities around the world, the distinctions fall more along the lines of socioeconomics and disparate levels of technology access.

U.S. hospital systems are extremely good about providing high-intensity care, but you end up spending an enormous number of resources. And to some degree it creates inequality for those who can’t access those services. I want to change that.