Google Health Unbound: Can It Overcome Indifference to Personal Health Records?

Last Updated Sep 15, 2010 5:19 PM EDT

One of Google's biggest stumbles in recent years has been Google Health, which has failed to gain traction and has fallen way behind Microsoft HealthVault in terms of partnerships. Google Health has just been relaunched with some interesting new features. But it hasn't reinvented itself -- and perhaps it can't.

There was a lot of excitement two and a half years ago when Microsoft (MSFT) and Google (GOOG) unveiled their web platforms for personal health records (PHRs). Some observers even speculated that this could be the beginning of a new era in which patients would control their own healthcare data and PHRs would break down the information silos that impede health data exchange.

None of that has happened, of course. While the latest data indicates that 7 percent of consumers are using some form of PHR, that's still a small fraction of the public, and one that seems to consist largely of younger, more highly educated people. Nobody has yet found the key to persuading most consumers that they need to track their own health indicators online.

Google Health's new approach is to go beyond merely providing a repository for standard health data such as medications, problems and allergies, and focus on helping consumers enter and track data that's important to them. That might include efforts to reduce weight, stop smoking, or get more exercise. A consumer who wants to lower his or her blood pressure, for instance, can enter readings in a preconfigured template that graphs progress over time. People can also create their own health trackers for specific purposes. And Google enables users to upload data from health-related devices such as FitBit, a belt clip-on that measures distance walked and calories burned; CardioTrainer, a feature of Google's Android smartphone; and the Withings wi-fi digital scale.

All of this has won plaudits from observers like Dr. Dean Ornish and Chilmark Research. But let's be clear here: Ornish was formerly head of the Google Health Advisory Council, so he's somewhat invested in the success of the platform. Chilmark does not appear to have a similar tie to Google, but its author states that he has been disappointed that there's no viable competitor to HealthVault.

HealthVault, meanwhile, has continued to strike deals that enhance the value of its website, ranging from the Mayo Clinic for educational content to Quest Diagnostics for lab results to Surescripts and several national health plans for medication data. And, while HealthVault offers to upload clinical data from healthcare providers in the dominant Continuity of Care Document (CCD) format, Google continues to cling to the little-used Continuity of Care Record (CCR).

Google did announce partnerships with a few significant providers, including Lucille Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford University, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and Sharp Healthcare. But, like HealthVault, it's able to obtain only a small trickle of clinical data. Until patients demand that doctors and hospitals upload their records to PHRs, it's not going to happen.

Meanwhile, it's hard to understand why Google Health believes that people will enter their blood pressure, cholesterol or blood glucose data unless they're very motivated. And if they're that motivated, they're people who already have serious health problems -- a small percentage of the population at any given time.

As for tracking exercise or eating habits, the inconvenient truth is that most people are lazy. A 2009 National Business Group on Health survey of firms that have wellness programs discovered that it's very difficult to motivate employees to participate, even with cash incentives. Only 1 to 2 percent of their respondents got 20 to 50 percent of their relevant employees involved in smoking cessation or weight reduction programs. Only a quarter of companies that offered health risk appraisals report persuaded the majority of their employees to take them.

So, while Google Health has taken a step forward with its new PHR, the jury is still out on the whole genre. Whether it will ever be a viable business remains unclear.

Image supplied courtesy of Flickr.
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  • Ken Terry

    Ken Terry, a former senior editor at Medical Economics Magazine, is the author of the book Rx For Health Care Reform.