Google and Microsoft may eventually become the envy of medical researchers, as the technology behemoths take on the role of hosting health care databases for consumers' own personally controlled health records (PCHRs).
The movement toward consumers controlling their own health records and the means that will get them there raises several issues of concern, according to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Under a PCHR, a patient would set up a portal that could authorize their doctors, health care providers, researchers, and family members to provide and share information relating to the patient. Those records and information would be stored in the patient's PCHR, which would be hosted by Google Health or the Microsoft HealthVault.
Microsoft is working with New York Presbyterian Hospital, and Google is working with Cleveland Clinic to have those institutions provide their patients with an electronic copy of their own records.
Once patients give their approval, companies, government organizations, health-related operators, and others could create applications that would connect to the PCHR platforms.
But the authors of the report, Dr. Kenneth Mandl and Dr. Isaac Kohane, raise a number of key questions concerning the PCHR service providers, such as whether the service providers will have a research mission and whether they would allow secondary use of any aggregated data of their users. And, of course, the issue of privacy was also addressed (PDF). The PCHR service providers are not under the same regulations as the health care industry, which restricts the sharing of patient information to only those people or entities whom the patient designates under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
The report says that Google and Microsoft's databases of patient information may eventually grow to be larger and more up-to-date than the databases of other well-known medical research programs. As a result, researchers may find it easier and cheaper to team up with Microsoft and Google when doing their research, rather than relying on a number of sources for data to do their research.
Challenges in putting PCHRs to use include limitations by some laboratories in releasing medical results to patients, the fact that a substantial number of medical records are still paper-based, and that the U.S. currently has no universal patient identification system.
"Despite these challenges, many consumers with PCHRs will soon control a valuable resource--an integrated copy of their health care information across sites of care," the researchers note.