Personal Health Records: Google's PHR is a glimpse of a connected future

May 23, 2008

The new PHR from Google makes digital medicine as easy as online shopping.

The new PHR from Google makes digital medicine as easy as online shopping. If Walgreens is your personal pharmacy, you can download your prescription historyinto this Google tool.

The Internet giant made its long-heralded PHR available to the public free of charge on May 19. As with rival programs, the “Google Health” PHR gives you the ability to compile your personal medical history. Height, weight, medications, immunizations, test results, allergies-you can fill in the blanks.

But if Google Health were just about DIY record-keeping, it would appeal to only a tiny minority of disciplined consumers. What makes Google Health a powerful tool with potentially massive appeal is its ability to import data from the computer systems of doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, and other healthcare organizations. Right now, Google Health lists eight such partners: Walgreens Pharmacy, Longs Drug Stores, the Cleveland Clinic, MinuteClinic, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Quest Diagnostics, RxAmerica, and Medco Health Solutions, the last two pharmacy benefit managers.

More organizations will undoubtedly appear on the list, but meanwhile, the capabilities of Google Health already excite a geek’s imagination. If you’re a patient at the Cleveland Clinic who uses Walgreens, Quest Diagnostics, and perhaps a MinuteClinic now and then, you can assemble a personal health record that’s rich with valuable data. And it’s not just for your personal edification. You can share this PHR with any doctor in the world using various software tools, some free, that are available through Google.

The federal government would like to electronically hook up every hospital, doctor’s office, lab, and pharmacy in the country for this kind of data sharing. The dream, as set forth by the Bush administration, is a nationwide health information network, or NHIN, which would provide every American with an EHR.

While building the NHIN has been slow going, Google has suddenly unveiled its own nascent network with a national reach. The EHR visionaries in the US Department of Health and Human Services ultimately want to plug PHRs like Google Health into their system. As a stand-alone tool that connects to some healthcare organizations but not others, Google Health isn’t the final answer, notes internist Mark Leavitt, chairman of the Certification Commission for Healthcare Information Technology, which certifies EHRs.

“You don’t want Google Health and its network competing with the Microsoft PHR and its network,” says Leavitt, whose organization plans to start certifying PHRs in 2009. “You want your PHR to link with any provider.”

One issue that CCHIT and HHS must wrestle with is the security and privacy of patient data stored in Google Health. That’s because Google isn’t a covered entity under HIPAA, and therefore not subject to its regulations. A Google boilerplate statement on HIPAA offers this reassurance: “We are committed to user privacy and have in place strict data security policies and measures.” Users of the PHR, the company says, control access to their stored health information. And Google promises not to sell it.