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Placing Our Trust in Google Health

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The public launch on May 19 of the Google Health site raises the question about whether it's wise for people to make large corporations such as Google, which isn't even directly involved in the health care industry, the custodians of our medical records.

Medical records have to be most sensitive information about ourselves that we own and still nominally control.

In the Internet age, we are voluntarily placing all kinds of information on the Web--everything from photos of our children to our family genealogies to the stories of our lives. We supposedly have control over how widely accessible this information is across the Web. We can limit access to family members and trusted friends.

We access our bank accounts, stock market portfolios and retirement funds on the Web, counting on the financial services companies to protect our account balances and our identities.

Electronic medical records management is the new frontier on the Web. And it's a potentially rich new source of revenue for Google and other companies in the field who are developing similar systems. Consolidating their records online is a complex and difficult task because these are the personal records that are the least organized.

Medical records are always scattered among a multitude of doctors, hospitals, insurance companies and pharmacies. Most of them are still on paper and haven't been converted to digital forms. All of the current custodians of these records are bound by federal law to carefully guard the privacy and integrity of these records.

The IT industry has been working for years to find ways to get these records digitized and into some kind of standard database management system to make them more accessible to health care professionals with the hopeful goal of improving the quality of care. But it's a battle the industry has had to fight hospital by hospital, doctor's office by doctor's office and patient by patient.

Now Google is going back to the tactic that has worked so well on the Web: Get the patients to voluntarily enter, store and manage their own medical records on its Web site using its data center facilities.

Google is offering to trade a free service to users that provides the supposed convenience of having their own consolidated medical records located in a single place where it will be accessible to them at any time. This will make patients better informed and help them work better with their health care providers with the idea that they will live healthier longer.

But what does Google get out of it? The company says it will never provide public search access to health data, nor will it sell user health data to third parties. Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products and user experience, says users' health data will be stored in servers with a higher level of security than the company's standard search servers.

Company officials said it is possible that it will aggregate general, anonymous data volunteered by users. For example, Google might gather information showing that 10 percent of users reported that a regular exercise program allowed them to cut their blood cholesterol by an average of 20 percent.

But Google will certainly generate revenue from health care businesses that advertise on the Google health site.

The search company has already lined up partners and third-party medical services that users can authorize to read their Google Health profiles. They can also authorize these services to automatically update user profiles with new test results, treatment records or prescription information.

For example, is an online service that uses Google Health profile information to create medication dosage schedules depending on users' prescription information. The American Heart Association's online Heart Attack Risk Calculator can use health profile information to assess users' risk of dying of a heart attack over the next 10 years.

All of this may provide benefits compelling enough to persuade people to post their medical records on Google Health. But every potential user should consider whether the benefits received will provide ample non-cash compensation for giving Google custody of this sensitive personal data. Because it is certain that over time Google will try to generate as much ad and marketing revenue as possible from your data.

John Pallatto

John Pallatto

John Pallatto has been editor in chief of QuinStreet Inc.'s since October 2012. He has more than 40 years of experience as a professional journalist working at a daily newspaper and...