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Google Health Heads to the Hospital

A new partnership at a Boston hospital could forecast future success.

Since its official launch last week, the eyes of the health-care world have been on Google Health–a long-anticipated new application from the search engine goliath that allows people to collect their medical records, prescriptions, and other health data and share them with others.

Currently, anyone with a Google account can access the service, now in beta testing. To the average user, the beta service offers some convenient features, like the ability to enter your own medical information or search your prescription history with a few big pharmacies. But it is among patients at networked hospitals–like Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston–that Google Health will prove whether it can truly live up to the hype.

On May 20, Beth Israel Deaconess officially joined the Cleveland Clinic and a handful of pharmacies, labs, and other health businesses as Google’s first partners in the new service. If Google Health succeeds at Beth Israel Deaconess, this may forecast whether patients are willing to trust their health information to large personal health record (PHR) providers, and it may hint at how Google Health and similar services might impact medical care in the future.

“I have a strong belief that patients should be the stewards of their own medical data,” says John Halamka, chief information officer at Beth Israel Deaconess, who also chairs the national Health Information Technology Standards Panel and sits on Google Health’s advisory council.

Odds are that the digital revolution has not yet reached your doctor’s office. A typical patient’s medical records–a compendium of charts, tests, and reports accumulated over a lifetime–are scattered across dozens of labs, pharmacies, and hospitals, in paper folders and in isolated databases. The result: doctors don’t communicate, information is fragmented, and medical care suffers.

Hospitals are increasingly moving away from paper files and toward standardized electronic records. But even with the growing digitization of health data, there is little sharing of records between different hospitals and doctors’ offices. By making it easy for patients to manage and share their own records, services like Google Health have the potential to bring about a tremendous increase in the fluidity of health data.

“One of the challenges, especially for folks with chronic disease, is that they may have 10 health-care providers,” says Halamka. “They assume that they’re chatting with each other and keeping their records in sync, and it’s actually not true.”

Through Google Health, Beth Israel Deaconess patients–who already have access to their own electronic medical records, via the hospital’s PatientSite program–can access official copies of their Beth Israel Deaconess records and save them in a Google Health profile, along with other medical information they create or import.

Halamka hopes that as more health-care providers sign up as partners, services like Google Health can allow patients to build a secure, seamless lifetime record of their medical information.

In its first week of operation, Halamka says, Google Health attracted about 150 of the several hundred thousand patients Beth Israel Deaconess sees each year. That’s not a lot. But if the service proves as popular as PatientSite, which has more than 40,000 users, it could give a big boost to Google’s efforts.

One of the biggest unknowns–and a topic of great debate–is whether people will trust their medical information to Google. Because it is neither a health-care provider nor an insurer, Google Health is not covered by the Health Information Privacy and Accountability Act (HIPAA). “If protections are not in place, there is always the risk that data will be used not in the best interest of the patient, but rather in the interest of the bottom line,” says Isaac Kohane, chair of informatics at Children’s Hospital Boston.

As Google Health grows, it will attract not just hospitals and pharmacies, but also other kinds of third-party partners seeking access to their members–raising the specter of new routes for direct-to-consumer marketing of drugs, unscrupulous research, and data mining.

Other hospitals will be watching carefully before they choose to partner with services like Google Health, says Kenneth Mandl, who runs Indivo, the PHR platform used at Children’s Hospital Boston. “We need to see the proper framework for regulation, certification, and privacy emerge that covers all platforms,” he says. “At that point, I think that ultimately it should be a patient’s choice about what platform they use.”

Halamka says that the company is taking critics’ concerns very seriously. “Google has been really pretty compulsive about privacy,” he says. “If it violates patient trust, you might as well just shut the site down.”

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