Google Health and the PHR: Do Consumers Care?

Google Health’s unveiling last week and Microsoft’s HealthVault launch last October are important milestones in the evolution of Health 2.0. Both of these heavyweights have the resources and potential to improve the health consumer’s customer experience. I have followed the active (and important) conversations about privacy concerns, HIPAA, and Google Health’s terms of service, which are well represented by Erik Schonfeld’s post on Techcrunch and Larry Dignan’s post on ZDnet. And I read with interest Google’s rapid response offered by Google Senior Product Counsel Mark Yang.

What’s missing from all of these conversations is the elephant in the room: Do consumers really care about having online personal health records?

Current evidence suggests that less than 3 percent of health consumers
maintain a PHR online, according to Lynne Dunbrack, program director at
Health Industry Insights, who commented in a recent interview. It
reminded me of the post on The Health Care Blog a couple of years ago,
PHRs, EMRs, and pretty much useless surveys.

And while Google trotted out some great enterprise partners last week
for its announcement, I didn’t hear any consumer voices or testimonials
on how Google Health will fulfill an unmet need. To me, PHRs and
electronic medical records remain an industry-driven vision, not
a consumer-driven one — focused on efficiency and reducing costs. It
seems we’ve lost sight of whether the consumer really desires and is
willing to participate in these services. What are the circumstances
for using a PHR and do the benefits outweigh the perceived risks?

Google Health does seem simple, straightforward, and easy to use,
albeit with some major holes in content and functionality that I
imagine will be filled over time. However, I struggle to see how it’s
creating value for the average health consumer. Yes, data portability
is important in some sense and does add a level of control for the
consumer, but how much work is required by the user to create this
asset? And how important is data portability to the consumer?  We all
remember the predictions of the paperless office. The “paperless
record” feels like this decade’s version of the “paperless office.”

The best news around this announcement is the upcoming Google API that
will allow others to create applications on this platform. There are
myriad privacy and security issues with data moving from Google to
third parties. For example, I’m not sure what personal health info was
sent to Daily Apple when I signed up for their widget, nor am I fully
aware or comfortable with Daily Apple’s privacy and security. But
despite this, I think the API holds the most promise for consumers.

The bottom line, for me, is that Google Health feels like a good,
incremental step toward putting more control in the hands of the health
consumer. People should have more information about their next
treatment or medication than they do about their next book or
automobile. Without a clearly delineated consumer benefit, however,
this is a platform waiting for a killer app.

Keith Schorsch is the founder and CEO of, a social health Web site.

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