Monday, May 26, 2008
Google Health opens, sparks privacy woes
After a year and half of development, Google's online filing cabinet for personal medical records is open to the public, giving users instant electronic access to their health histories, while reigniting privacy concerns.
Called Google Health, the service lets users link information from a handful of pharmacies and care providers, with plans to add many more. The Internet search giant is the latest entrant in the growing field of companies offering personal health records on the Web. Their ranks range from longtime online health services such as WebMD to the software powerhouse Microsoft to start-ups such as Revolution Health.
The companies all hope to capitalize on the trend of consumers increasingly seeking health information online, and the potential of Internet tools to help them manage their own health care and medical spending.
Google enters the field of personal health records with a leading online brand, deep pockets and a wealth of technical skills. In a two-month trial this year, the Cleveland Clinic found that its patients were eager to use the Google health records. Google Health differentiates itself from the pack through its user interface and features such as the public availability of its application program interface, or API, said Marissa Mayer, the Google executive overseeing the service.
More than two dozen companies and institutions announced that they are partners with Google Health, including Walgreens, CVS, the American Heart Association, Quest Diagnostics, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Cleveland Clinic.
Mary Adams, 45, a Cleveland Clinic patient who participated in the Google Health pilot, said that she was initially concerned about the privacy of her medical information. Still, she felt safe enough to enroll and has been using the service for six months, linking it with an online health management tool from the Cleveland Clinic and adding information on prescriptions and doctors to her online profile.
The service, still a non-final ''beta'' version, does not include ads. Besides importing records from providers, users can enhance their password-protected profiles with details such as allergies and medications, they can search for doctors and they can locate Web-based health-related tools. The health venture provides fodder for privacy watchdogs who believe Google already has access to too much about the interests and habits of its users in its logs of search requests and its vaults of e-mail archives.
Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, said services such as Google Health are troublesome because they aren't covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. Passed in 1996, HIPAA set strict standards for the security of medical records.
By transferring records to an external service, patients could unwittingly make it easier for the government, a legal adversary or a marketing concern to obtain private information, Dixon said. During a webcast earlier this week, Mayer said users' health information is stored at Google's ''highest level of security.'' Mayer said in an interview with The Associated Press that users' health information will not show up in search results.
Utah company is participating: A Utah company is one of 14 businesses and organizations that are part of the offerings of Google Health. MediConnect Global of South Jordan offers to retrieve medical records for Google Health users and to identify information from them to be placed in their profiles.
MediConnect will digitize the records from health care providers identified by customers. Customers will be able to access their records online or download them to their own computers. "MediConnect's medical record retrieval service allows people to have access to information from their personal health history from anywhere in the world at anytime," said Amy Rees Anderson, company CEO. The company charges a fee of $98 for up to 100 pages and 10 cents per page for additional records, said Cory Maloy, director of communications. The company complies with the federal health privacy law, he said.
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