Google to the Rescue with Electronic Medical Records System?

February 28, 2008

Google Inc has unveiled a plan to help U.S. patients gain control of their medical records and is working with doctors’ groups, pharmacies and labs to help them securely share sensitive health data.

The long-rumored entry by Google into the highly sensitive field of health information came when Chief Executive Eric Schmidt introduced Thursday a service it calls Google Health at a health care industry conference in Orlando, Florida.

Google said it has signed deals with a range of companies, including medical tester Quest Diagnostics Inc, health insurer Aetna Inc, Walgreens and Walmart Stores Inc pharmacies, as well as several hospitals.

Google Health is a password-protected Web service where health records are stored on Google computers. It has a directory of outside medical services that lets users import doctors’ records, drug histories and medical test results.

Google aims to foster sharing of information between these services, but keep control in patients’ hands, allowing them to schedule appointments or refill prescriptions, for example.

“We don’t know how to suck it out of the brains of doctors, but we know how to suck it out of the computer systems of doctors,” Schmidt said in an interview after his speech.

A week ago, Google said it was teaming up with leading academic medical researcher Cleveland Clinic to test a data exchange that puts patients in charge of records.

Schmidt said it would be a few months before Google Health is offered more widely.


For decades progress has been slow converting paper records often scrawled in illegible doctors’ script and stored in conflicting filing systems into centrally held digital records. IBM, Oracle Corp and Siemens AG, among many others, have worked on such digitization.

Few hospitals and primary care physicians use electronic records, and those that do suffer from conflicting formats.

Google’s biggest rival, Microsoft Corp, has introduced HealthVault, which gives users control over who sees what. Among start-ups active in the field are Revolution Health, a company backed by former AOL Chairman Steve Case.

Such personal health record services are based on the idea that individuals retain control of their data. “The information in your health record is yours and it doesn’t get shared with anyone else without your permission,” Schmidt said.

Electronic record-keeping have been held back by a lack of focus on consumer needs, not vague privacy fears, he said.

“Any end-user system has to have portability as its main principle and it has to be ‘normal-person’ designed, not doctor designed,” Schmidt said in the interview.

While medical providers are covered by U.S. privacy laws, there is little in the way of established privacy, security and data usage standards for electronic personal health records.

Google is prepared to resist fishing expeditions by lawyers seeking to subpoena personal medical records stored on Google Health. Last year, it went to court to defeat an effort by the U.S. Justice Department to request some Google search records.

“We’ve taken a pretty aggressive position in a pro-consumer way in the U.S., but I do want to assure you we are subject to U.S. law,” Schmidt said.

Google generates virtually all of its revenue from online advertising sales, but has no plans to sell ads on Google Health. Instead, it can make money indirectly when health record users search for other types of medical information.

Google, whose none-too-humble corporate mission “is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” sees solving the complex privacy issues around health information as part of this broad undertaking.

By tackling medical privacy, Google also stands to benefit in finance and other areas where sensitive data is stored.

(Additional reporting by Debra Sherman in Chicago and Eric Auchard in San Francisco; editing by John Wallace and Braden Reddall)

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