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Google's New Project: Your Health Records

About a year ago Google announced that it would launch a service to allow users to store their own health records on a secure website. There was a lot of discussion about what it would look like but the wait is over. A free public "beta test" version of Google Heath is now operational at

The service allows users to create an online profile that includes information about any medical conditions, test results, procedures, immunizations and medications. You're also asked to enter in your height, weight, blood type and race. With this information, the service, in theory, could offer you tailored medical information as well as serving as a central hub storing your medical records.

Eventually the goal is for users to be able to import their health information from the secure websites of care providers. To that end, Google already has arrangements with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and the Cleveland Clinic as well the online pharmacies from Longs Drugs, Walgreens, RXAmerica and Medco. A relationship with Quest Diagnostics allows users of its services to import their lab tests. Google also has a link to the American Heart Association's heart attack risk assessment site so that you can get your customized risk assessment without having to retype your height, weight, cholesterol and other into the Heart Association's site.

One nice feature is the drug interaction alert that lets you know about potential conflicts between drugs you take. Of course, you have to remember to enter all your drugs for that to work.

Because none of my providers are among Google's initial partners, I had to enter all the information myself. Fortunately, it was easy to find because the health clinic I use most of the time has its own online service that stores this information. I'm pretty happy with what my provider offers but it's an island of information. If, for example, I were to have a blood test done elsewhere, that information would not be on my provider's site nor is there a way I could even type it in. Google is trying to solve that problem by creating a health record keeping system that is controlled by the user, not the health care provider. This is especially important for those of us who don't belong to a health maintenance organization (HMO) because we might visit different physicians who are not affiliated with each other.

Clearly privacy is the number one concern when it comes to any online medical information service. Google's health privacy policy states that "You control who can access your personal health information. By default, you are the only user who can view and edit your information." You can, however choose to share your information with others. The company also promises not to "sell, rent, or share your information" and will let you delete your account or any information in it at any time.

But even though I take Google at its word, I worry about hackers. Google Health product manager, Dr. Roni Zeiger, told me that the company has very good security and while Google does have a good track record in this area, there is never an ironclad guarantee that a site couldn't be hacked. Of course - despite safeguards required under the federal "HIPAA law (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) - there is also the possibility that someone could break into your doctor's office to steal your records or that your health care provider could be careless about its own privacy and security policies.

Because of my inability to import information into the service, I find it of minimal use at the moment but I do see the potential, especially after more service providers come online. I also see the potential of linking this and similar services to health and fitness technology products such as blood pressure cuffs, scales and exercise equipment. By coincidence, Google launched the service the same day as the U.S. launch of Nintendo's Wii Fit Balance board and workout software. I could easily see how Nintendo and Google could work together to make both products more useful by linking them via the Internet.

Dr. Dean Ornish, the preventive medicine author, serves as an advisor to Google Health and attended the launch event at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley Monday. I asked Dr. Ornish why putting health information into patients' hands was better than relying on solely on doctors to provide necessary care and information. "That model," he said "has been of limited value because it provides all the information and all the control with the physician … It's much more powerful to have a collaborative relationship with the patient where the physician becomes the resource that has information, shares that information and provides choices to the patient about what to do with it - the risks, the benefits, the costs the side effects and so on." He argues that "Google Health can help provide that information to the patient as well as the physician."

Google is not without competition. Microsoft has launched its own HealthVault service which it bills as "the hub of a network of Web sites, personal health devices and other services that you can use to help manage your health." So, in addition to fighting over Yahoo and search advertising, these two giant technology companies are slugging it out over your health records.
By Larry Magid

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