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Having more or less recovered from Wall Street's infectious doubt about the health of its ad business earlier this week, Google on Thursday offered a glimpse of Google Health, its upcoming personal health records management service.
"Google Health aims to solve an urgent need that dovetails with our overall mission of organizing patient information and making it accessible and useful," said Marissa Mayer, Google's VP of search and user products, in a blog post. "Through our health offering, our users will be empowered to collect, store, and manage their own medical records online."
The glimpse of Google Health comes in the form of a screen shot: It shows a sample user's health Profile Summary in the right-hand sidebar, with sections for Conditions, Medications, Allergies, and Procedures. The left-hand sidebar includes links to a subscriber's profile data, medical contacts, health notices, and drug interaction warnings. The center column contains links to add information to Google Health, to import health records, to find online health management tools, and to search for doctors.
The screen shot also includes an appointment and chart viewing widget associated with the Cleveland Clinic. Google last week announced a pilot program with the Cleveland Clinic to test its online health records system.
Coincidentally last week, the World Privacy Forum released a report warning that personal health records (PHR) are not protected by federal HIPAA privacy and security rules and that putting PHRs online raises a number of privacy risks.
Missy Krasner, product marketing manager for Google Health, acknowledges that Google isn't covered under HIPAA. "However, there are many things that we're doing that are stronger than HIPAA," she said.
Google appears to be taking the high road, at least initially. At the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society conference in Orlando, Fla., on Thursday, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that Google Health would not include advertisements, at least initially. That may defuse, or perhaps merely postpone, privacy worries related to advertisers using health information to target the sick.
Krasner likened Google Health to Google News in terms of how it helped the company. "We have several products that are free to our users that help provide value and help drive more searches," she said. "A good example is Google News. ... Google Health is the same kind of strategy. So many people come onto Google to do health-related searches."
Google maintains it will safeguard users' health records. "Google Health will protect the privacy of your health information by giving you complete control over your data," said Mayer. "We won't sell or share your data without your explicit permission."
While giving individuals "complete control" over their own data sounds appealing, such apparent magnanimity might serve to protect Google from liability should the revelation of health data lead to discrimination or embarrassment. Absent gross negligence on Google's part, Google Health users will have no one but themselves to blame if, say, they misdirect their health records to an unintended recipient or leave their Google Health page on-screen while away from their desks.
At the same time, Google's strategy could herald a new period of innovation in the delivery of health care services. Krasner said she expects health care providers will find it easy to develop offerings that connect to Google Health. "What Google is really good at is delivering a really easy and clean user experience," she said. "It's very easy to integrate with Google and we think we'll be able to scale our third-party ecosystem relatively fast."
An ad in Thursday's New York Times for Microsoft's HealthVault offers a reminder that Google isn't the only company with a horse in this race. In announcing HealthVault last October, Peter Neupert, corporate VP of Microsoft's health solutions group, described the service as a private search experience, a secure online data repository, and a health information management application.
HealthVault, in other words, sounds a lot like Google Health. While it's tempting to see the competition between Google and Microsoft as having devolved into a juvenile tit-for-tat in which every Google product has a Microsoft alternative, Andrew Rocklin, a principal at Diamond Management & Technology Consultants, argues that the approaches taken by the two companies are complementary and may be able to co-exist. In an e-mail, he suggested that Google aims to be more of a consumer-facing service while Microsoft is looking to provide health platform infrastructure for businesses.
Mayer said that Google Health would be made "publicly available in the coming months."