Google health projects

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Last Update

This entry is out of date, and will not be updated, June 2017


See also Canada Health Infoway 800px-Flag of Canada.svg.png | Consumer health information | Electronic health records (EHRs) | Google medicine | Google scholar | Open data

Google's health projects have generally been very disappointing, and have not produced the expected results in recent years. In 2008, Google moved into consumer-controlled health and patient records by creating Google Health. The project, which was made available in the United States only, was never successful. In a 2012 JAMA article, there was this statement: "...personalized health records (PHRs) for consumers, such as Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault have not achieved their predicted uptake." Note that Google health is not the same as the tagging and search-related project called Google - Coop (Health) (see below).

In 2013, Google has no plans for health-related projects despite its ongoing development of Google scholar, and shuttering of three failed projects: Google Co-op (Health); Google Health and Knol (retired). Although Google search can produce good results, reliable health information can still be difficult to locate for health consumers. A lot of the bona fide medical information on the web is hard to find, poorly organized and held deep in proprietary databases such as DynaMed and UpToDate. Further, medicine’s best evidence is inaccessible except for those affiliated with universities and large teaching hospitals. Medical research buried in the deep on the web has been a problem for many years. Is this best evidence critical to the practice of medicine and more informed patient decisions? A growing body of evidence suggests, when found, it leads to better overall clinical decision-making.

What was 'Google health'?

Pulldown menu in Google health (retired in early 2013)

Google health (to be retired completely on Jan 1st, 2013) was both a health search engine and a health storage space for consumers. In 2011, it was first announced that GH would be discontinued along with Google PowerMeter because they didn't meet Google's or consumer expectations. Instead, Google recommended Microsoft's HealthVault as a health storage space for personal health records. Users were told that data could be modified until January 2012, and downloaded until January 1st, 2013, after which Google would remove all user data without another chance to back the data up.

One of the strengths of Google health was the information that patients could track in their personal records such as medications, allergies, immunizations, procedures, medical conditions, and test results. One of its many benefits was a completely integrated health record and a tracking of conditions and allergies. Google health was available in the US only. Only Google health members accessed their private information unless consent was given for it to be shared. Another problem with Google health was that it was not covered under the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. Some critics charge this huge privacy issue doomed the project from the beginning. Google did not accurately predict the amount of apprehension to volunteer private health information. Critics panned Google's Terms of Service which now seems strangely out of step with what would have been required for success.

Google health & privacy

As mentioned, privacy issues are front and centre with Google health. However, many patients are unaware or do not seem concerned that personal health information is owned by Google once it is uploaded into the service. Some web experts and advocates suggest that Google health may be as private or more private than "paper-based" methods of record-keeping in health systems where record are subject to all kinds of breaches. Google health contains no advertising. In fact, similar to its academic search service Google scholar, Google will not reveal how this new tool will be monetized. In development since mid-2006, Google health had a two-month pilot in 2008 with 1,600 patients at The Cleveland Clinic. In May 2008, Google health was released to the general public in beta.

Google health features

Free & open-source health records

The newest example of providing access to information in patient records is OpenNotes. For several years, Microsoft HealthVault and other Health 2.0 services for consumers - such as the open source Dossia - Lifelong Personally-Controlled Health Record - have sought to help patients track their own personal health information as they move through the health system. The goal with health record projects is to make personal health information accessible and transportable - which is of benefit to both consumers and physicians. In addition to Dossia, the open source Tolven Healthcare integrates the three aspects of e-health: personal health information, information held by physicians and by health organizations using informatics platforms.

Canadian context

Most physicians in Canada and the United States continue to use paper-based methods for medical record-keeping. However, increasingly, physicians are spending money to digitize their health records and move to the electronic patient record. In Canadian hospitals, with more patient systems becoming electronic through informatics initiatives at Canada Health Infoway, new mechanisms are available to health professionals to write notes in patient charts, prescriptions, order lab and diagnostic tests, and review test results as they become available. In short, digitizing the patient path through the health system.

Google Coop (Health)

In August 2006, in conjunction with the Medical Library Association, and Stanford University, health librarians in North America were enlisted to volunteer for the tagging of consumer websites in Google Co-Op health. The project came under harsh criticism from bloggers. First, Google Co-Op (Health) is a tagging project and unrelated to the electronic health record project. American health librarians volunteered to help with the Google Co-op (Health) project. The idea was that health librarians should be first to volunteer to tag the Web, and to bring better organization and findability to consumer health websites. MLA past-president, MJ Tooey, said: "MLA’s participation in this PILOT project affords the association an opportunity to learn and experiment with organizational models applied to new types of information environments." It's not surprising that health librarians wanted to contribute their tagging expertise to Google Co-Op (Health). However, Google is (and was) the world's richest, most-used search engine. Medical librarians never resolved whether the project made sense, and whether the massive amount of tagging that was required could realistically be accomplished with no remuneration for participating librarians.


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