On The Death of Google Health

Headstones from the 1770s

by Jason Brandt (@jasondmg3)

On May 19, 2008, the medical and digital communities were abuzz with the news of a new Google product, one that could organize all of a users health information digitally and connect them with relevant news and data. Google Health had been first showcased at the annual meeting of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, and was now, with fanfare and excitement, open to the public. With it, consumers could manage their health with extensive capabilities for data storage and analysis.



But they wont. Google Health will be permanently shut down on January 1, 2012.

Why did it fail?

Clint Boulton of Google Watch nailed it when he said, “My feeling is the world isn’t ready for accessing personal health records online en masse just yet. No concrete reason, just a hunch. For many, the current system works okay. Most people don’t access their health records with the frequency with which they check their bank accounts. In his statement, he points out both why Google Health failed, and why healthcare can be such a difficult industry.

Success requires trust.

When push comes to shove, many of us still fundamentally have some distrust of digital privacy. Its one thing to put pictures online, or even to do our banking online – but nothing is more personal than our health. It is fundamental to who we are. And for many people, if unwanted people were to find out too much about them, they fear being exposed to everything from embarrassment, at best, to the loss of insurance eligibility or employment, at worst. We want control of our health information, and we still want that control to be in analog.

And this distrust does seem to still be valid. This Google Health FAQ worried people, and reasonably so:

Does the data I store in Google Health get used for other Google products, like Search? Yes, we share information between Google products to enable joint features. [….]

Who would want information about their ED prescription, their early-onset Alzheimers diagnosis, their HIV status or their status as a genetic carrier of a disease to be casually “shared between Google products? Google Health was not covered by HIPAA. There isnt much thats more confidential than our health records, and to have their open-book status so breezily acknowledged would – and did – make most of us uncomfortable.

Caring vs. doing.

In addition to the conundrum of digital health privacy, though, theres another very important facet to the downfall of Google Health that we should notice.

While we crave privacy with our health, we check our bank statements more often than our cholesterol or blood-sugar levels. We feel strongly about the importance of our health, but we dont always act on it effectively the way we do other data.

This isnt news, of course: why else would we be struggling with a crisis of obesity, and why else do people still smoke, suntan or speed? But its a fundamental problem to getting patients to act, and it has to inform all of our development. Patients dont want data. They dont want to hear why they should modify their lives. They want answers. They want to know easy tips and quick changes that will help them painlessly move to healthier ways of living.

Although Google Health may have been misguided, or ahead of its time, or both, it did serve a purpose in reminding us: We need to provide not information repositories for our patients, but practical solutions.

Google Health image from here.

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