🎁 'Tis the season to support public service journalism Donate Now

Google’s next search: Medical records

Marketplace Staff Sep 5, 2008

Google’s next search: Medical records

Marketplace Staff Sep 5, 2008


Tess Vigeland: Google just turned 10 this week and besides changing the way we search on the web, it wants to change the way you store your medical records.

I know you are thinking: Is the Internet a good place to store your medical records? WBUR’s Martha Bebinger walks through Google’s Health to explore the risks and benefits of creating a medical record online.

John Halamka: So the way we start is you log into Google Health. You’ll see if we look at the screen, there’s a big icon that says “Import Your Medical Records.” So why don’t we start with that.

Martha Bebinger: Dr. John Halamka is the Chief Information Officer at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and an unpaid member of the advisory board for Google Health. He sits in front of a computer screen with Jerilyn Heinold, a patient at Beth Israel, who wants to see how uploading her electronic medical record to Google works.

Halamka: Now, immediately it’s taken us to your login at the Beth Israel Deaconess personal health record. So log in using the secure credentials that you doctor gave you.

Beth Israel Deaconess is one of the first medical centers to sign up for Google Health. In the initial phase, patients can merge electronic records created by Beth Israel Deaconess, CVS, Walgreens and a dozen other health care entities on Google.

Transferring medical files from paper to a computer is not widespread in Massachusetts. The legislature is considering spending $25 million a year to help doctors and hospitals with the initial investment.

Halamka: So now we are fully linked between Google and Beth Israel Deaconess. You are now given the choice of what you would like to upload: Your diagnoses, your medications, your allergies. You can pick all or none of those. Totally up to you.

Jerilyn Heinold: OK, so far, so good. I understand it.

Heinold is no stranger to electronic health records. She works for a non-profit organization on several projects about how consumers and physicians might use them. Halamka and Heinold know each other professionally, but when Halamka asked Heinold if she’d like to test storing her medical record online, her first reaction was “Why would I want to do that?”

Heinold: Because I had some questions about the secure nature of the connection. It’s interesting because it brings up the whole issue of trusted relationships. I have a trusted relationship with my physician at Beth Israel and she was very supportive of the idea of an electronic health record and then I also have a trusted relationship with Dr. Halamka.

Heinold decides that the benefits of having her medical information in one place online outweighs the risk of a security breach. Most people have records scattered across many labs, offices, hospitals and even states. Heinold travels frequently and wants to be able to pull up her record if she needs care in a hospital other than Beth Israel.

Heinold: I would want the physicians to know absolutely everything about me that they could possibly know. More information is better than no information.

Bebinger: Dr. Halamka, would it be possible to isolate my mental health history, for example, if that was something I didn’t think was appropriate for an emergency room technician to see?

Halamka: A patient can put privacy flags on any of this record that they wish. They can not change the facts in the record however. You can hide it, but you can’t change it.

Halamka says the Google Health server cluster is not connected to any other Google features, so a Google search would not pull up your health record.

Halamka: It’s not on Gmail, it’s not on Blogger, it’s not on YouTube, it’s not on Search. It’s a totally separate, isolated, secure area and they have not co-mingled any Google features with Google Health.

Heinold: Right now, these privacy policies seem absolutely adequate, but what’s to protect me if they change their minds?

Halamka: Google, Microsoft, Dossia, all these companies offering online health records are only selling one thing: Trust.

Still, I wonder, what will Google do with this information? HIPAA, the federal law that controls the release of patient records, does not govern these online medical records programs.

Halamka pulls up the Google Health privacy rules:

Halamka: We will never share your data. We will never data mine. We will never advertise based on your health data. You know, it’s not, “Oh, I’m a diabetic; we’re having a sale on glucometers at XYZ.com.” They’ve truly built firewalls between the advertising and personal health record.

Carlton Doty: I think they’re walking a fine line there.

Carlton Doty, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, says Google or Microsoft or any of their health records competitors are also creating a major advertising venue.

Doty: Certainly they can’t expose personally identifiable information, but they’re going to house a lot of medical information and that represents a significant advertising opportunity for either pharma companies, medical device companies, health insurers, you know, whoever.

Medical researchers hope — with a patient’s consent — to mine online medical records for more expansive studies of medications, disease management or the spread of a virus. But online records programs have to build numbers before they will be of use to anyone and industry analysts say that’s at least three to five years out.

In Boston, I’m Martha Bebinger for Marketplace Money.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.