Google lifts veil on its personal health record

One week after Google said it was testing its PHR with Cleveland Clinic patients, the company's CEO gave the first public showing of Google Health.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted March 17, 2008

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The 28,000 health IT professionals, physicians, hospital executives and others attending the Health Information and Management Systems Society's annual conference in late February got a preview of the long-anticipated Google Health electronic personal health record system.

During his keynote address, Google CEO Eric Schmidt unveiled and demonstrated Google Health, which is currently being tested in beta form with up to 10,000 patients at the Cleveland Clinic. Schmidt said he expects the system to be rolled out for public use in about five months.

Google's goal for the PHR, as stated by Schmidt, of "changing the world and improving your health," was simply stated, but could be considered grandiose considering the slow growth in the PHR market.

At last count, more than 200 products exist that are called PHRs. Few have gained traction as only about 5% of the total patient population has a PHR. But industry insiders, including those in the PHR market, believe big names such as Google could help change those statistics and also help the existing vendors that are currently struggling to find takers.

PHR advocates claim the systems will help control health care costs by placing consumers more in control of their health. Google claims its PHR is different from others because it can interface with almost any other program, meaning information can be exchanged between the PHR and insurers, physicians, pharmacies or other sources the patient chooses, and the data live all in one place. The company also says its system helps educate consumers by combining the health records with Google's search features to provide links to relevant health information or articles that are prompted by keywords in the records.

Google is not the first big name to enter the market. In 2004 AOL co-founder Steve Case began Revolution Health, which launched a PHR in 2007 along with its consumer health Web site, Microsoft announced its PHR system, HealthVault, last fall.

Patient privacy rights activist Deborah Peel, MD, says while Google has done the right thing in terms of making a consumer-driven product that puts the patient in control of how data are exchanged and shared, the company is lacking in one key area that could give Microsoft an advantage over Google.

"Microsoft is not just saying they are doing patient privacy, they are conducting third-party audits to prove it," she said. "I'm hoping Google will see the light and not only say they are doing good, but show us."

Google says the consumer will determine how private the records are by choosing for themselves who can access or share their information.

Dr. Peel's Patient Privacy Rights group plans to make HealthVault, which it has already endorsed, the first product it certifies as part of a program that will assess PHRs and EMRs for patient privacy. Dr. Peel said she met with Google and reviewed Google Health before it was made public. And while Google has gone to great lengths to say its product will be secure, it has, so far, refused to agree to outside audits, she said.

Schmidt claims "interesting partnerships" will make the difference for Google and its success in the PHR marketplace, although the company doesn't plan to advertise on the PHR or profit from it.

During his address Schmidt displayed a screen with the logos of a few dozen companies and organizations Google plans to partner with, including Medem, the PHR that is owned by the American Medical Association and other medical societies. The list also included insurers, drugstore chains and hospital systems.

"We need these folks as partners," Schmidt said.

American Medical Association COO Bernie Hengesbaugh served on Google's Health Advisory Committee, which offered input during the development of the product.

Beyond privacy, a concern expressed by some doctors attending HIMSS and Schmidt's keynote address was the unwillingness of some of their colleagues to use data created by an outside source.

Dr. Peel said the physicians' arguments were ridiculous, as no physician would confirm a diagnosis with only one test anyway. "Just because I get a record on paper doesn't mean I will agree with that either," she said.

But data with an electronic stamp of authentication could help physicians make decisions and reach their own diagnosis, she said.

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