Two-thirds of all internet users do Google searches to look for health information. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Google is entering the world of healthcare in a big way. A couple days ago Google Health went live. It’s still only in a beta version, but users can already give it a test drive. So what is it, exactly?
The fundamental notion is that it gives the patient, the consumer, access to (and therefore control of) the health record. A user can store in one spot all information about his health — medical records, laboratory test results, pharmacy records, and even general information about his health conditions. This last aspect is key. Your Google Health site can be a central repository about what your health needs are, what’s been done about them, and what you might or should do about them. Of course for the whole thing to work most third-parties, like hospitals, pharmacies, and doctors’ practices, have to sign on to participate. More fundamental than that, medical records need to be totally electronic so users can upload them, and at this time many, even most, are not — they’re still on paper.
Google also plans to do more than just be a search engine. Through its Knol project, it means to be a source of hard information about health issues with a whole library of signed articles by experts. I was one of the medical experts Google asked to help launch the project, which should go live later this year. I think it will be a very useful site and will generate a huge amount of traffic because all of the contributions are signed by people whose credentials you can check. It also will allow comments by readers.
One major concern about Google Health is how secure your personal health information is, and if Google (or anybody else) will use it to target marketing initiatives at you. Google says they are taking extra precautions to secure the data, but this is a serious concern. Also, as of now there is no advertising on the site, but there could be in the future. I would be concerned if Google used your personal health record to select ads targeted at you, as they do now according to what you search. You can read a general news story about the project here and an insider’s description by Dr. Bob Wachter here.
Edited to add: here’s another excellent review of what Google’s entry into healthcare might mean. It’s from Lynch Ryan’s Workers’ Comp Insider blog, and it weighs both the pros and the cons.