ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Google Inc has unveiled a plan to help U.S. patients gain control of their medical records and is working with doctors’ groups, pharmacies and labs to help them securely share sensitive health data.
The company’s long-rumored entry into the highly sensitive field came when Chief Executive Eric Schmidt introduced Google Health at a health-care conference in Florida on Thursday.
Google said it has signed deals with hospitals and companies including medical tester Quest Diagnostics Inc, health insurer Aetna Inc, Walgreens and Walmart Stores Inc pharmacies.
The password-protected Web service stores health records on Google computers, with a medical services directory that lets users import doctors’ records, drug history and test results.
Google aims to foster sharing of information between these services, but keep control in patients’ hands, allowing them to schedule appointments or refill prescriptions, for example.
“We don’t know how to suck it out of the brains of doctors, but we know how to suck it out of the computer systems of doctors,” Schmidt said in an interview after his speech.
A week ago, Google said it was teaming up with leading academic medical researcher Cleveland Clinic to test a data exchange that puts patients in charge of records.
Schmidt said it would likely be a few months before Google Health is offered more widely.
For decades progress has been slow converting paper records often scrawled in illegible doctors’ script and stored in conflicting filing systems into centrally held digital records. IBM, Oracle Corp and Siemens AG, among many others, have worked on such digitization.
Google’s biggest rival, Microsoft Corp, has introduced HealthVault, which gives users control over who sees what. Among start-ups active in the field are Revolution Health, a company backed by former AOL Chairman Steve Case.
All are based on the notion that individuals should retain control over the data. “The information in your health record is yours and it doesn’t get shared with anyone else without your permission,” Schmidt said.
Electronic record-keeping has been held back by a lack of focus on consumer needs, not privacy fears, he said, adding any system should “‘normal-person’ designed, not doctor designed.”
While medical providers are covered by U.S. privacy laws, there is little in the way of established privacy, security and data usage standards for electronic personal health records.
Google is prepared to resist fishing expeditions by lawyers seeking to subpoena personal medical records stored on Google Health. Last year, it went to court to defeat an effort by the U.S. Justice Department to request some Google search records.
“We’ve taken a pretty aggressive position in a pro-consumer way in the U.S., but I do want to assure you we are subject to U.S. law,” Schmidt said.
Google earns almost all its revenue in Web advertising, but has no plan to sell ads on Google Health. It aims to make money indirectly when users search for other medical information.
Google sees solving privacy issues around health as part of its none-too-humble corporate mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
In tackling medical privacy, Google also stands to benefit in finance and other areas where sensitive data is stored.
Some privacy advocates were quick to criticize the effort. Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida American Civil Liberties Union, said storing medical records with consumer Web services raises data breach risks. “A breach of security would be catastrophic,” Simon said. “It’s very, very troublesome.”
But Andrew Rocklin, a principal in the health care practice of Diamond Management & Technology Consultants, whose clients include big U.S. health insurers, said giving patients more control over records promises many benefits, while raising some new issues.
Perceived risks of online health records will remain high until consumers become more familiar with the benefits. When tied to exercise, dieting or other wellness programs, such records can give consumers extraordinary insights, he noted.
“People need to be good stewards of their health in general and their health data, which is an aspect of that,” he said.
Additional reporting by Debra Sherman in Chicago and Eric Auchard in San Francisco; editing by Braden Reddall