Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Google launches medical records service beta test

Google Health Releases, Patient Records Go Online

Google Inc. on Monday opened its hosted online patient medical records service to the public, seven months after first announcing plans for a foray into health care.
The Google Health program, which allows patients to store personal health information online, this week continued to generate more questions about privacy and security than fanfare.
Carlton Doty, a Forrester Research Inc. analyst who follows consumer-based health IT efforts, said such efforts often prompt detractors to immediately decry a lack of privacy and security protections. However, he predicted that consumers will probably get over these concerns eventually, just as they have mostly overcome fears of providing credit card information to e-commerce Web sites.
However, Doty did note that a lack of sufficient partners could cause problems "The biggest barrier here is that for personal health records to really be useful, they need to tie together not just users inputting information, but [also] information from the provider from their electronic medical records and information from the insurers," he said. "I don't think Google or anybody is really there yet."
Early on, the program will rely mostly on a patient's own input because of the lack of partners outside of early signees such as The Cleveland Clinic Foundation and drug store chain Walgreens Co. "When it comes to lab data and medical history and those kinds of things, doctors rely today on reliable sources -- not the consumers themselves," Doty noted. In addition, he questioned whether Google can keep to its pledge not to include advertising on the Google Health site.
Pharmaceutical companies would be a likely source of advertising dollars, he said. "To effectively place those advertisements, you have to open up that database to those pharmaceutical companies," Doty said. "For me, to store my medical information in that type of a setting and have pretty much any company that targets health care consumers have access to my health care data -- even if it's anonymous -- it still just doesn't feel right."

In the Google Health privacy policy, the company pledged not to "sell, rent or share" consumer health information. "You control who can access your personal health information," the policy states. "By default, you are the only user who can view and edit your information. If you choose to, you can share your information with others."
Jeff Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), a not-for-profit advocacy group in Washington, also questioned whether Google can keep its commitment to keep the site free of advertising.

In a blog post, Chester noted that Google is advertising for executives to operate what it calls its "Consumer Products and Health Care Marketplace." The job posting said that the executives will "be working with those who provide advertising solutions for companies that produce and sell consumables and health care products/services."

Chester said that consumers should have immediate online access to their health records, "but should the price we pay be tied to allowing health data storage providers collect information about our medical concerns and interests, so they can sell ads to pharmaceutical and health-related companies? There are serious questions which must be addressed about the implications not only to our health privacy, but [also] the impact on our behaviors from medical-related interactive marketing."

As for the security of the records, Jacqui Cheng, a blogger at Ars Technica LLC, noted that Google Health's ease of use could lead to security lapses.

If you already have an account with Google (already required in order to use Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar and the like), then you have already skipped a major step [of signing up for the service]," she noted. "This is also one of Google Health's possible downfalls, however, as it is now exceedingly easy for a hacker to discover someone's universal Google log-in (which, by the way, has no minimum requirement for secure passwords) and not just access their e-mail but their health records too."

Finally, Richard McManus, a blogger at Read Write Web, concluded in a blog post that the Google Health system still faces a large integration challenge in developing software that lives between patients and physicians and other health care entities.

"It feels like Google Health is not much more than a glorified health search engine/portal -- which to be fair is perhaps the whole point (Google's motto after all is to organize the world's information). In terms of the market for health apps, it is still a nascent one," McManus said. "Google Health is a decent entry into the game-changing (and potentially hugely profitable) world of health 2.0. But in comparison with other health start-ups, Google Health has a limited scope and is not as innovative a service as we've come to expect from Google."

Google yesterday launched a beta test of its long-awaited yet contentious Google Health service for archiving medical records and finding medical services.

The new offering, which launched with a handful of partners including pharmacies and clinics, is intended as a one-stop shop for users who want all their medical information in one place. Given the nature of the information being stored, however, the new site is likely to provoke controversy among privacy advocates who may be wary that the medical records are safe from tampering or snooping. Google, for its part, pledges never to sell a patient’s information, and promises that it will only share it with a patient’s permission – a permission that can be revoked at any time. It remains unclear how the search giant intends to profit from Google Health in the long-term, but it is possible that it will eventually charge doctors and hospitals if they want to be a part of the site. Google already faces competition from Microsoft, which began offering a similar HealthVault service in October. Revolution Health, a start-up backed by former AOL chairman Steve Case, is also believed to be working on a service for electronic medical records.

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