Monday, February 25, 2008

Google Your Health Records!

Looks like Google is moving forward on its health records project. Thomas Claburn and Marianne Kolbasuk McGee of Information Week take a look at their new pilot program and some of the privacy concerns being voiced about it:

"We believe patients should be able to easily access and manage their own health information," said Marissa Mayer, VP of search products and user experience at Google, in a statement. "We chose Cleveland Clinic as one of the first partners to pilot our new health offering because as a provider, they already empower their patients by giving them online tools that help them manage their medical records online and coordinate care with their doctors."

The pilot program represents a tentative first step for Google into the thorny area of health care data issues. It also gives Google a greater opportunity to cash in on the lucrative business of health care advertising. The company on Wednesday announced the availability of its Healthcare Industry Knowledge Center to AdWords advertisers offering health care-related products and services.

Google's timing could be better. The World Privacy Forum on Wednesday issued a report warning that personal health records (PHR) are not protected by federal HIPAA privacy and security rules and that entrusting such records to a PHR service -- the very thing Google is offering -- raises a number of possible risks.
The issue with any sort of electronic medical records always boils down to the question of how secure and private are they? The article cites the recent controversy surrounding Blue Cross of California's letter to doctors asking them to identify patients with pre-existing health issues. Critics speculate that Blue Cross was collecting this information preparatory to limiting or denying coverage to those people. The fact that Blue Cross Wellpoint was fined $1 million last year for canceling and withdrawing coverage in violation of California state law does not help the company's credibility. Many worry the same could happen if insurance providers got access to Google's records.

Another major sticking point raised is the data harvesting that comes hand in hand with an advertising supported service, which all of Google's applications are:
[...] the World Privacy Forum report is skeptical that any ad-supported PHR [Public Health Records] service will really protect health information. "Advertising-supported PHRs are not necessarily likely to support or allow strict control over consumer information or to fully and readily tell consumers how personal information may be shared," the report states. "Many PHRs will only succeed if they can sell advertising, and advertisers will seek as much detailed information about PHR clients as they can obtain. Wheedling consent from consumers for the profitable sharing of records is something that some PHRs are likely to try."

Todd Chambers, chief marketing officer at Courion, an identity and access management company that works with health care industry clients, believes security and privacy worries are justified. "Obviously, it's concerning, to say the least," he said. "When you look at all the issues that hospitals and health care providers have to deal with to be compliant [with health industry regulations]... to think that there would be a business process put into place that would allow that all to be circumvented, and all that data could be put out there in the public domain, is certainly a huge concern."

Regardless of the risks, Google (NSDQ: GOOG)'s vision, or something like it, may be unavoidable. Over 100,000 of the Cleveland Clinic patients already participate in a PHR system called eCleveland Clinic MyChart. Between 1,500 and 10,000 of these will be invited to enroll in the organization's pilot program with Google, which will last between six and eight weeks. Cleveland Clinic received no funding from Google to participate in this pilot, said Dr. C. Martin Harris, Cleveland Clinic's CIO. "Google was a natural" fit to help Cleveland Clinic in this health data exchange for patients, said Harris.
It is quite probable that this sort of debate will be increasingly frequent more online and application based solutions are brought to the fore and tested. As with all things computer oriented, Google, Microsoft, and possibly Apple should be observed carefully over the next year or so. This pilot program is only the tip of the iceberg.

If you want to get an idea of what the tech community thinks on the subject, check out the short piece about this on Slashdot. The discussion in the comments is quite diverse and contains much food for thought.

SOURCE: "Google, Cleveland Clinic Partner On Personal Health Record Service" 02/21/08
SOURCE: " Google to Begin Storing Patients' Health Records" 02/21/08
photo courtesy of Yodel Anecdotal, used under this Creative Commons license

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