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Get ready to Google-ize your health records

CEO Eric Schmidt to reveal Google's plans for digitizing the medical industry at health care trade show, but privacy and competition concerns abound.

UPDATE 2:30 p.m. PT with hospital CIO comment.

ORLANDO, Fla.--Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt will detail the company's plans for Google-izing the health care industry at a health care trade show on Thursday morning, starting with a consumer destination site called Google Health.

Schmidt is scheduled to give the morning keynote speech at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) 2008 annual conference here and will outline Google's vision on tackling the next Internet frontier of medical data. The move, rumored for a few years, makes sense, given how much people use the Web to get health information and how much they spend on medicines and health care.

Google Health is being previewed at the company booth and gives a glimpse of what consumers participating in a trial in Cleveland will experience--a clean and simple interface where people can get to their health information in one place, share it with others, and search for information and care providers. Google Health will be available for anyone with a Google account to use later this year, said Missy Krasner, product marketing manager for Health Team Google.

This will be extremely convenient. Who hasn't struggled at the doctor's office to remember when that smallpox vaccine immunization was received or been overwhelmed by the task of trying to find a specialist doctor who takes your insurance plan and is located near your home or office?

Consumers using the site will be able to create a customized profile of their health, and share that with doctors and family members, as well as eventually important medical records from hospitals, doctors' offices, and pharmacies. The site is integrated with Google Maps and Gmail to enable people to search for health care providers, see their locations on a map, and save the contact information in Gmail.

Like it does with home page gadgets, Google will allow third parties to create gadgets that work within the platform. For instance, one gadget could alert people through Google Calendar when they need to take medication, Krasner said.

Google representatives weren't allowing anyone to take photos of the screen, but I snuck this one on my iPhone. On the table next to the chairs were the requisite colored lava lamps, infusing the sterile medical trade show environment with some cool, Silicon Valley Google aesthestic.

The screen shown at the Google booth featured three main columns of information. On one side were links to notices, drug interactions, and medical contacts, among others. In the middle were links to allow you to add more stuff to the profile, import medical records, discover more health tools, and find a doctor. On the right side is the profile summary, where you can link to conditions, medications, allergies, procedures, and test results.

The Google booth was tiny in comparison to others around it, but it was extremely crowded with representatives from other companies wanting to partner with Google and with consumers eager to know what Google has in mind for their medical information.

"I spend more time on Google than anywhere else on the Web," said one woman, who stepped up for a demo and was handed a Google mug and a cookie because the Google oven mitts handed out in prior days were gone. (Google also gave out aprons at a party for partners the night before to go along with its "Google Home" theme for the event, to signify that Google Health is a "safe and central place on the Web for medical information," Krasner said.)

Privacy and security are paramount
Given Google's strong brand in search and its reputation for innovation, there's no doubt that consumers will be riveted. However, Google will have to convince people that it can adequately protect their personal information, particularly sensitive information like medical conditions that could be misused by employers, insurers, and others, if exposed.

"There's going to be a time when law enforcement wants to see the records of someone," said Michael Zimmer, who is the Microsoft resident fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. "We know law enforcement has already asked for search records."

Google Health will be serving as a proxy for the consumer and therefore is not subject to government regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), as hospitals and doctor clinics are. This worries the World Privacy Forum, which issued a report (PDF) last week on the privacy consequences of personal health records. Such records can be more easily subpoenaed by a third party than health records covered under HIPAA, and data could leak into a marketing system or otherwise sold, the report said.

Krasner said Google Health users will actually have more control of their data because their express consent is required for any data sharing. Users can also hide portions of their profile, if they share it with others, and can delete data.

"I don't think consumers really understand this stuff," said Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence. "The convenience of having a health profile online would be valuable, but the issues of privacy and security really trump others, until there is legislation in place to protect consumers."

Google and others "want to become a new generation of digital Park Ave. doctors. They claim they are protecting medical and health privacy, but the real goal is to harvest consumer health data so they can target individuals with precision advertising for specific prescription drug brands and over-the-counter remedies," said Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. "Behavioral targeting and other interactive marketing require a range of specific privacy safeguards, when it comes to health marketing."

Krasner told CNET Networks' ZDNet that Google won't sell the data and won't put ads on the site, but rather hopes to drive traffic to partner sites where there will be ads. In addition, Web searches will not be used to provide services or information to users of Google Health, Google representatives said.

One hospital administrator who hasn't seen Google Health yet is optimistic about the plan. "Generally speaking, personal health records are a good thing. I'm all in favor of individual responsibility, and having information close to you and in your control," said Craig Vercruysse, chief information officer at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. "It is smart on Google's part to tie that into their overall search strategy."

Microsoft as friend or foe?
Google also faces competition from others, such as Microsoft's HealthVault, Healthline, WebMD and Revolution Health, founded by AOL founder Steve Case.

One of the most popular features of Revolution Health's Web site is the free personal health record, and people feel comfortable using it, Case said in his keynote at the HIMSS conference Wednesday. Consumers also like the Care Pages section, where friends and family can get updates on how a patient is progressing.

"We believe care pages can be the initial link between hospitals and consumers," Case added.

Earlier in the week, Microsoft announced that it was planning to spend $3 million to drum up developer support for its HealthVault electronic-records platform. Google Health could work with HealthVault, Microsoft representatives said.

"We are committed to being open," said Peter Neupert, corporate vice president for Microsoft's health solutions group. "We're just the custodian for the data. If you want to move the data from HealthVault to Google, you can."

Microsoft is creating a back-end ecosystem for developers, while Google is jumping in with a front-end site for consumers.

Google's strength in search technologies gives it a leg up over the others, said Alfred Spector, vice president of research and special initiatives at Google, as well as an engineering executive for Google Health. "Other core advantages are the infrastructure for storage, high availability, and scalability."

Other challenges remain for Google. The slow-moving health care industry is focused on long-term planning, while Google grew up in the rapid-pace environment of the Internet.

If it wants to extend its reach beyond the consumer portal, Google will need to find ways to work with more entrenched industry giants, such as Intel and General Electric, which are already working to bring the medical field into the Digital Age.