Google to launch consumer health care service later this year

With a pre-announcement of a health care "cloud" initiative at a medical conference last week, Google took further steps into the health care market. But some in the health care industry question Google's long-term commitment.

Over the year ahead, Google will introduce a new service called Google Health, said Google CEO Eric Schmidt, in a keynote speech at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida.

Schmidt told doctors and other practitioners at the conference that, as a newcomer to health care services, Google plans to "partner with leaders in health care" in hopes of achieving "the right outcomes for patients." Among possible services that might he available on Google Health, he pointed to health care support groups for consumers.

Google Health is now being tested at the Cleveland Clinic, with results of initial testing expected over the next three weeks. Patients volunteering for the pilot test have agreed to transfer their medical records to online health profiles.

Meanwhile, he said, third-party software vendors in the health care field are using Google's APIs to build specialized applications.


Google CEO Eric Schmidt gives the keynote speech at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society Annual Conference in Orlando, on February 28. [Courtesy Google]

"The owner of the data has control over who accesses it," Schmidt said, in an obvious parry against any privacy concerns that might emerge over Google's plans to place health care information on the Internet. "It's the consumer's data. It isn't anyone else's data. It follows them wherever they go."

Schmidt later maintained that the information will be protected by user names and passwords. For instance, if Google Health users decide to switch doctors, they'll be able to give permission to a new doctor to get Web access to medical images taken by a previous doctor on an earlier visit.

In a Q&A session with practitioners, however, the concerns that cropped up weren't about patient rights, but about Google's commitment to health care and its intentions around monetizing its investment in a health care service.

With regard to the first of these issues, Schmidt replied that Google will only stick with the new service "if consumers like it...You'll know that right away."

Schmidt said further that, initially at least, Google will not try to monetize Google Health, drawing an analogy with Google News. Google doesn't sell ads for Google News, he said, because its users are likely to continue their searches on the ad-supported Google Web search anyway.

The CEO went so far as to contend that many health care consumers today trust the Web more so than their doctors as a source of health information. More than two-thirds of consumers who do online research about health matters "start their [research with] search engines," said Schmidt.

Google's interest in entering the health care market pre-dates last week's pre-announcement of Google Health by at least a year and a half.

"Patients [need] to be able to better coordinate and manage their own health information," wrote then-Google VP Adam Bosworth in November 2006. "As the Internet increasingly helps link communities of people, we [think] there is an opportunity to connect people with similar health interests, concerns and problems. Today, people too often don't know that others like them even exist, let alone how to find them. The industry should help there, too.

"These are some of the health-related problems we're thinking through at Google," Bosworth continued. "We don't have any products or services to announce yet and may not for quite some time, but we thought we'd share a bit about the problems we're interested in helping out on even before we introduce solutions."

Bosworth had joined Google from BEA Systems, originally to head up its emerging Google Health team. He left Google in November of 2007.

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