Google Health Going Away - Is it the End of PHRs?

June 29, 2011

PHRs were and are an important and promising concept. And Google, being the undisputed king of web entities, certainly looked like it would be a player in this space.

A little more than a month ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google Health, a 3-year-old free online Personal Health Record (PHR) service, might be going away. It said that new Google CEO (and original co-founder) Larry Page indicated that he was in the process of significantly streamlining Google's operations and projects, and Google Health was apparently in the crosshairs of those ventures that were not core to Google’s business and which had not gained sufficient traction.

According to a Google blog post earlier this week, Google in fact will be retiring Google Health as of January of 2012.

A PHR allows individual patients to upload and manage their personal health information online. It is a very useful tool - recreating your entire lifetime health history is a major pain and leads to errors and mistakes if you forget a key piece of information. Of course most doctors' offices are not yet set up to take data uploads directly from online PHRs, but at least you could print it out and refer to it when filling out the mountain of forms when you go to your doctor. And eventually as more practices, hospitals, and clinics were able to interoperate with PHRs, the promise was that patients would be much more empowered with their own personal health record, avoiding the annoying clipboard/front desk scenario every time they go a new provider (and, frequently, when returning to their same provider.)

PHRs were and are an important and promising concept. And Google, being the undisputed king of web entities, certainly looked like it would be a player in this space. It had some impressive support from partners, lining up such organizations as including from Cedars-Sanai Medical Center, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Wal-Mart (hundreds of thousands of employees), Walgreens (presumably integrated in some way with Rx), and Quest Diagnostics, the large lab company.

If Google can’t make PHRs a success, what chance is there for widespread adoption and proliferation of PHRs? Microsoft HealthVault, which was announced about a year earlier than Google Health’s PHR, is no doubt going to pick up the slack. And several large health systems, insurance companies, and EHR systems have some PHR functionality within their patient portals. But the loss of such a web market leader is sobering.

What happens to the data? Google has announced that it will make the data available to users for another year, until January of 2013. You can download it in a variety of industry-standard electronic and printable formats, allowing you to preserve it for yourself or possibly transfer it to another PHR service. But if you are a medical practice or other health entity and you have invested time and resources building interface functionality based on Google Health for your patients that effort will now be rendered useless.

But as a bigger issue, what happens to your data when a cloud service provider like Google Health drops a particular service? In the worst case, you lose your data (unless you make the effort to actually retrieve it). But even in the best case, you have to scramble to re-create that functionality with another provider, or bring it in-house. And hopefully it will actually be deleted from all the hard drives and backup tapes in all the data centers that they maintain all around the world, and won’t end up on some discarded hard drives somewhere that someone buys for scrap, only to find thousands of patient records and ends up being a story on the nightly news.

Learn more about Marion K. Jenkins and our other contributing bloggers here.