Google Shows Some Humility After Health-Records Gaffe

Last Updated Apr 24, 2009 11:02 AM EDT

In a post earlier this month, I took Google and Microsoft to task for acting as if new legal provisions meant to safeguard the privacy of patient-specific health data didn't apply to their personal health records platforms, respectively known as Google Health and HealthVault.

Since then, Google Health has taken a much larger public-relations hit. Last week, the Boston Globe noted that electronic records built from insurance claims rather than actual clinical data can be inaccurate to the point of alarm. Specifically, cancer survivor Dave DeBronkart, who blogs as e-Patient Dave and is a featured contributor on, looked at his Google Health record and found, incorrectly, that his kidney cancer had spread to either his lung or spine. Google Health also suggested that deBronkart had an aortic aneurysm and that his potassium level was too low for him to continue on his blood pressure medication.

The only thing is, DeBronkart says he never had an aortic aneurysm and that his potassium level hadn't been low since being hospitalized at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center two years ago. The inaccurate information apparently came from insurance claims, and the codes listed for billing purposes are different than those used for reporting diagnoses.

At a conference in Boston this week, John Halamka, chief information officer for CareGroup Health System, which includes Beth Israel Deaconess, said that 6,167 patients from that hospital had used Google Health. That makes me wonder how many others might have gotten inaccurate data.

Google could have followed its usual M.O. and clammed up, but Google Health Project Manager Roni Zeiger did not run away from the problem. At the same Boston conference, Zeiger admitted that he had learned from the experience and that Google Health would now allow free-text diagnoses that didn't have to correspond to a billing code. DeBronkart, who also happened to be in the room, got up and lauded Google for being "transparent" throughout this whole episode.

After showing mostly arrogance since launching Google Health a year ago, perhaps the Internet search giant has some humilty after all.