Quick: When's the last time you had a tetanus shot? Who was the doctor taking care of you when you had it? And how many overstuffed folders would you have to rummage through to figure that out?
For nearly two years, Google has been offering free accounts at google.com/health that allow users to store, organize and, should they choose to do so, share their health data with a doctor, family member or caregiver. Google Health won't say how many people have signed up (and neither will Microsoft HealthVault, which has a similar product). But it's starting to pick up on the business side.
In March, Google Health said it is teaming with Surescripts, the nation's largest electronic-prescribing network, which connects physicians to major pharmacy chains as well as thousands of independent drugstores--and the insurance plans that cover 65% of U.S. patients. With your consent, your doctor can use this network to pull up your prescription history. Register with Google Health, and you'll be able to see it too.
Having access to this information is particularly helpful if you flit among doctors or if you are trying to manage Mom's health when you're in Seattle and she's playing mah-jongg in Miami. Google Health will flag you, for example, if your account has prescriptions for drugs that shouldn't be taken at the same time.
But despite all the stimulus money being directed toward developing electronic medical records, there are still surprisingly few doctors, hospitals and insurers using Google Health and other sites like it. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center just announced that it will start to integrate its records with Google Health. Cleveland Clinic, the MinuteClinics inside CVS stores and the Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center participate, as does Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. And there's a pilot project under way for Medicare fee-for-service users in Utah and Arizona. There are a couple of others, but it's still a short list.
One reason may be that Web-based personal-health records like the ones being compiled on Google Health don't appear to be covered under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which requires that health care providers and health plans protect patient confidentiality. The federal government is in the process of drafting privacy recommendations that would apply to Google Health--which has pledged not to sell user data--as well as the makers of consumer apps that perform tasks like monitoring blood pressure.
"We don't connect that information to other aspects of Google," says Dr. Roni Zeiger, product manager for Google Health. Unlike Google's main search page or e-mail accounts, Google Health has no ads. Its business model is simple: the more people use Google Health, the more they're likely to punch in health-related queries, which routes them to a regular Google search-results page. That, in turn, drives revenue to the site.
Even so, Google Health users who are skittish about privacy may not rest easy after they are greeted with the following notice: "In the unlikely event we discover a security breach that allowed an unauthorized person to acquire information in your Google Health profile, Google will notify you at the e-mail address you provided." You can also choose to receive such alerts via snail mail. Time to batten down your passwords.