Google is entering the world of medicine with its launch of Google Health, a product that allows patients to gather their medical and prescription records from various providers and organize it on the Web to create a picture of their health care. As is typical when technology and medicine cross paths, controversy has erupted. In the case of Google Health, the dominant question hovering around the introduction of the product is whether the benefit of shared medical data is worth the potential risk of privacy invasion.
Getting started on Google Health is simple. All I had to do was log in using my Google account. Now, how about obtaining medical records? This can be done, for a fee, at mediconnect. net, a medical records retrieval, scanning, and storage services provider.
Once I discovered it was seemingly easy to retrieve my records, I wanted to know how this approach was more beneficial for me and my physician than simply letting the physician handle the records. Missy Krasner, product marketing manager on Google Health, explained, “Google Health is entirely focused on the patient/user/consumer, but we think it will benefit doctors as well. Users of Google Health in the future (as the feature is not yet enabled) will be able to give their doctors access to their secure profile. When doctors have information at the point of care, they spend less time chasing down this information and more time treating their patients. Such information can also minimize medical errors and redundant test ordering,” she said. “Doctors and hospitals may also benefit from being listed as providers who can integrate with Google Health. This may help with promoting their practices and driving more traffic to their practice or hospital Web sites.”
With the potential to save time and market your practice, Google Health starts to look pretty good, but what about patient privacy? Typically, a Google log-in is an e-mail address, which is shared with whoever you e-mail. With that information, it’s simply a matter of guessing a password to access medical records. In my research, I also read that HIPAA regulations don’t extend to Google Health services. Furthermore, people are voicing concerns about what Google could potentially do with the data—sell it, use it for their own marketing research purposes, etc.
Beyond the privacy concerns, how can physicians know that the records imported by a patient are accurate? Would it be possible for someone to show up for an exam, say they have insomnia (as indicated by their own personal documentation in Google Health), present this information to the physician, and try to obtain a prescription sleep aid? Not to worry, Google has, of course, taken such a scenario into consideration. “Anything entered in manually by the patient is the equivalent of what a patient tells a doctor during a visit or what they fill out on their paperwork at a doctor’s office about their medical history,” Krasner said. “If data is manually entered by the patient, it is sourced as hand entered; if it is imported from another source, such as a hospital or retail pharmacy, it is sourced and identified by that provider. Also, any data that is imported from an external source is not editable by the patient.”
While many physicians and patients will argue that this technology has too many risks, this is the way of the future. Technology is invented for practical application. Once timesaving, cost-efficient technology is developed, it is almost invariably adopted. Rather than fighting against technological advancements, it’s more productive to participate in the safe and efficient application of the technology. If one of your patients inquires about Google Health, help them understand the risks and advantages. Advise them to create a separate account for Google Health in order to better protect their privacy. You can also experiment with Google Health at google.com/health. If you or your patients find that Google Health is enhancing patient care, feel free to e-mail me about your experience.
—Franklin A. Holman