Google Health – Innovation or Invasion?

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Google launched a year ago (March 2008) a new service, Google Health. According to its corporate mission, Google seeks ways to consolidate information and make that information available anytime, anywhere. This time, Google is innovating in an area as sensitive as it gets, your health data. Will Google Health be considered an innovation or an invasion?

Google Health Screen Capture

Google states upfront that the data will remain entirely confidential unless and as you see fit to share it (with specified family, friends and medical support staff…). Google writes, “[w]e believe that your health information belongs to you, and you should decide how much you share and whom you share it with. We will never sell your data. We store your information securely and privately. Check out our privacy policy <> to learn more.”

Essentially, the idea is to track all your medical information and history in one single spot. Digitizing your medical records would seem to be a necessary prerequisite to making this service useful. That means scanning in all the handwritten notes and immunization cards, etc. that you have been carefully filing away and moving with you from home to home over the years. Google Health does enable you to import your medical records, but that supposes that all your medical service providers have your records on digital file. For now, Google has evidently done some of the legwork by partnering with a host of hospitals, doctors and pharmacies, etc. But, I sincerely doubt that they have us all covered under that partnership, especially when the majority of my files are ex-United States. Presumably at one point, you can imagine that there will be a technology that allows us to upload all our X-rays too?

As a source of information, using the intelligence of microprocessors, random access memory and contextual search engines, I can definitely imagine the benefits of Google Health down the road. Google writes, “Every time you add new health data to your profile, Google Health will check for potential interactions between your drugs, allergies, and conditions.” And, for those of you who travel a lot, the ability to have all your health data at your fingertips can be a true boon. For now, I am signing up just to see what it all means even if it will be difficult to assemble all my data spread out in multiple countries. There certainly is the potential for this type of service to radically change the way we manage our own health. For that, trusting in Google’s privacy record, I am deeply in favour. I will be interested to find out what the medical members of the blog community say about this?

Please give me your thoughts.

— UPDATED April 28th, 2009

“Technology is making health care more portable, precise and personal”

This weekend, I was fortunate enough to pick up the April 18, 2009 Economist, in which there was a timely special, “Medicine Goes Digital,” on the topic of digitising health records. As the article (16 pages) states, “the health-sector has been surprisingly reluctant to embrace information technology…” as doctors still tend to work with pen and paper in most of the world. “The convergence of biology and engineering is turning health care into an information industry. That will be disruptive, says Vijay Vaitheeswaran (the Economist’s health care correspondent interviewed here), but also hugely beneficial to patients.” The article strongly points to the gains that can be made from a patient’s standpoint by being the master of his or her own medical information. A study by the RAND think tank forecasts that, if over a 15 year period, 90% of US hospitals adopted Health Information Technologies, there would be potential annual savings of $77B from efficiencies; and the savings could double if health and safety benefits were also factored in. That would equate to a 6% reduction in the 2.6 trillion dollar health care bill for the US this year. So, we need to encourage the doctors to go digital (which will help clear up mistakes from the forever illegible hieroglyphics that doctors learn in medical school) as well as acclimate patients to storing the information on secure sites on the ‘net. Let’s get the ball rolling!

3 Comments, RSS

  1. Anthony Lombardi

    Great blog Minter!

    I have a slightly different view in general. I think the sharing of electronic files etc. is a good idea depending on the type of condition being treated. For example, in my field, musculoskeletal pain/dysfunction management, the use of computerized files/information will not improve the level of health care administered to the patient. I see this first hand as I have had numerous discussions with many pain specialists who have travelled from Europe to McMaster University to take the medical acupuncture training ( where I am an instructor). We always come to the consensus that globally, the track record of musculoskeletal pain/dysfunction medicine is simply not a good one. After heart related diseases, musculoskeletal pain is the second most common ailment treated in the world today. Chronic pain is plaguing millions simply because there are only a select few of doctors ( of all disciplines) who can understand that successful treatment is multimodal (manual medicine working with conventional approaches) not one dimensional (typical prescription drugs etc). So… from my perspective, transforming the way we gather information (faster/easier) won’t likely improve patient care since (in the musculoskeletal arena) most doctors still will not know what to do with it.

    Hamilton Back Clinic,
    Hamilton Ontario

  2. Dr Sandra

    My only concern is that the site allows patients to enter their own data.

    I have found that it is not infrequent, especially in my line of work i.e heavy stress situations and often difficult news, that what I say and what the patient hears can be very scarily different. So it is possible that their could be misinfo – not that it does not happen anyway from our end, as we all get info from patients when we deal with them and may also misinterpret, but we can go back and check etc. , I am not sure what the checks and balances would be here.

  3. Minter

    @Dr Sandra, That is a very good point. And having dug in a bit, i find the way that the items are filled in rather cumbersome and, i would argue, not done by “real” people, but some marketers at Google! Immunizations don’t allow for the date, for example.

    @Anthony Lombardi: Medicine still has a long way to go… Bedside manners, overtired residents, overload of paperwork and insurance issues, bad handwriting (and the obvious mistakes that go with that)…

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