Google’s long-awaited and long-hyped online health service
has finally launched
in the United States.

Pitched as a place where you “can store and manage all your health information in one place,” Google Health enables users to create profiles that contain personal medical information, including conditions and medications.

A number of medical facilities and pharmacies have partnered with Google to enable their patients to import their medical records directly into Google Health.

Although it will include a search box within Google Health that leads to search results containing Google’s signature AdWords advertisements, no advertisements will be displayed directly on the service.

Instead, Google sees Google Health as “a way to increase the overall value of its services“. 

Marissa Mayer, Google’s Vice President of Search Product and User Experience, noted that because so many people use Google to search for medical information it makes sense for Google to participate in the online health space.

She stated:

“Google Health is all about pulling together documents from your doctor’s office, labs and pharmacies to provide a holistic picture of your health.”

Of course, the obvious challenge that Google faces in making Google Health a worthwhile business investment is addressing the considerable privacy concerns that its service raises.

Already a source of suspicion because of the company’s unrelenting quest to “organize the world’s information,” Google’s desired access to personal medical information raises the stakes to an even higher level.

Google tries to reassure prospective users that their most private medical data is in good hands:

“Google stores your information securely and privately. We will never sell your data. You are in control, you choose what you want to share and what you want to keep private.”

Despite its stated commitment to privacy protections, many are asking questions about the implications of Google Health.

And rightfully so. Beyond the potential threat that your data could be stolen or abused, Steven Levy of Newsweek has pointed out that services such as Google Health are not covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which provides significant protections for individuals in the US.

Levy explained:

“Medical files in the care of health providers like doctors, pharmacies and hospitals enjoy legal protections specified by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Covered files are strictly controlled, can’t easily be subpoenaed, can’t be exploited for profit and have to be stored securely. But Microsoft and Google aren’t health-care providers.”

The consequence of this, as noted by Robert Gellman of the World Privacy Forum, is that:

When you move records from a doctor to a personal health record, your protection evaporates.

That’s quite a sacrifice. And it’s one that I’m not sure is worth it.

Google’s demonstration of how a fictional user, “Diana,” could use Google Health is certainly interesting. Knowing that she had come down with a case of sinusitis, Google Health suggested a specific medication, but because of its access to her medical records, knew that Diana might have an allergic reaction to the medication and alerted her to this fact.

Throw in “conveniences,” such as the ability for Google Health to pre-populate data on third-party services and to send SMS alerts when it’s time to take a medication, and it’s easy to understand why Google thinks it has a nifty product in Google Health.

That said, I don’t see any of the features offered by Google Health as killer applications and at the end of the day, I think the appeal and viability of Google Health boils down to a few simple questions.

  • Are consumers really willing to trust that a free service offered by a massive advertising-driven business will safeguard their most private data?

  • Are they willing to risk giving up certain legal protections in doing so?

  • And are they willing to rely upon a service that isn’t operated by a medical provider that has legal obligations to them?

When the potential costs are weighed against the potential benefits, it’s difficult to argue that there’s anything compelling about Google Health because for every positive, there are even more significant negatives.

Throw in the fact that many of the larger healthcare providers already offer similar online tools to their patients and I suspect that Google Health is destined to become yet another Google offering that fails to gain the type of traction one might expect it to gain given Google’s dominant position.

Given that I’m allergic to potential compromises of my most personal information, I think I’ll be avoiding Google Health.