Google Takes Health Records Online

Published August 1, 2008

Google’s partnership with several hospitals to test its new service, Google Health, has spurred some in the policy community to question whether new legislation is needed to protect patients’ privacy.

The program, launched May 20, allows patients to enter their own health information and access prescription data. The only thing patients need to use the service is a Google account.

Privacy Concerns

The ubiquity of Google combined with the personal nature of health care data–already subject to federal regulation–has raised privacy concerns should Google Health succeed and grow.

“The scary part is the Big Brother issue. Do we want our records online? The reality is for it to truly work, it has to be online, because for example, if you’re in a car wreck in California and you’re unconscious, [medical personnel] need to be able to get [your] information even if all your information [was compiled] in New York,” said William Felkner, president of the Ocean State Policy Research Institute.

No New Laws Needed

John R. Graham, director of health care studies at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, believes the government shouldn’t get involved in the matter.

“Policymakers should leave Google alone. Since [the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] was passed in 1996 it has been a goldmine for consultants and lawyers, and done little or nothing for quality of care,” Graham said.

“Unfortunately, the [Bush] administration takes a Big Government view of health IT,” Graham continued. “Since 2004, the United States has had a National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, and at least 12 different agencies have overlapping interests in this area.

“It is amazing that any entrepreneurship can take place in such an environment. Leave Google and its competitors alone,” Graham said.

Greg Blankenship, president of the Illinois Policy Institute, agrees.

“Electronic medical records have been touted by many in government as a magic bullet to save money and improve health outcomes,” Blankenship said. “Where they’ve been tried they haven’t been successful. It was the private sector that solved security and privacy issues surrounding e-commerce; I imagine it will be much the same here.”

Privacy Assurance Needed

“The only information exchange system for health care records that works is one patented by Dr. Bob Coli. He started this back in the ’70s, and now everyone seems to be catching up with him,” Felkner said.

“Google Health’s records will probably explicitly emulate Microsoft HealthVault’s personal health records privacy guarantees,” said Coli, who now runs Diagnostic Information System in Warwick, Rhode Island. “There should be [a] detailed definition of privacy, independent performance audits, and no drug company data mining without each patient’s authorization.”

Regarding his pioneering program for tracking health records, Coli said, “My approach is an outgrowth of my personal frustration since I was in private practice in Rhode Island until 2004. Personal health records do need a standard format that integrates the test results data. That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to accomplish for many years, and only now is it becoming a hot topic.

“When you’re sharing clinical data across a network that will cover all 50 states and health information exchanges, they’ll be networked together, whoever sponsors them–Google or Microsoft,” Coli said.

Krystle Russin ([email protected]) writes from Texas.