Internet giant Google officially launched its health portal yesterday, Monday, whereby any member of the public can keep his or her own private health record in a secure web-based account.

Based at, the portal allows users not only to store their medical information but also use the search engine’s powerful features to find and manage health information related to their own conditions.

Your Google Health record allows you to enter information about your drugs, diagnoses, test results, and treatments in a personal account. There is also a pro-active alert system that monitors your search activity so if you look up data on a drug, Google alerts you if that drug has contra-indications for a drug that is already in your record.

At first glance such a facility may appear cumbersome; who is going to spend time keying in all their medical information? But perhaps the most striking feature of the new service is that it opens up information flow among the key medical “hubs” in your life: your physician, your pharmacist, anyone you choose to participate in contributing to your medical profile.

However, this ideal scenario is not yet in place because many of these health organizations are not on the system yet.

Google’s latest service comes close on the heels of a number of other providers offering web-based personal health records. WebMD for example offers Health Manager, a service that purports to “easily gather, store and manage lifelong personal health information”, share it with authorized health providers and “maximize your health benefits”.

And last autumn saw the launch of Microsoft’s HealthVault, a service that also allows you to store and share health information online, and like the Google system, to search intelligently for information that relates to your particular circumstances. The novel feature in the Microsoft offering is the ability to use “plug and play” devices that load information directly into your health information manager, for instance readings from diabetes and heart rate monitors.

These pioneering providers are anticipating a huge expansion in the demand from people who want to manage their own health records and expect to be able to find health information online and exploit increasingly powerful web-based information management tools.

The Google Health system offers the following key services:

  • Build your health profile online: enter information about your health conditions, drugs, allergies, and lab results.
  • Import records: from participating health care providers like hospitals and pharmacies.
  • Research health topics: for example diseases and conditions, and potential medication interactions.
  • Search for doctors and hospitals: look for a doctor’s website, get directions, and even save contact details to your own list of medical contacts.
  • Connect to online health services: search a directory of providers that are already linked up with Google Health.

These various pioneers face considerable challenges, and many critics say it will be some time before these ideal scenarios turn into reality.

As Lynne Dunbrack, program director at Health Industry Insights, a market research and advisory services firm told PC World last October, these providers are banking on a significant growth in the 30 per cent of US doctors and hospitals that currently use electronic health records, or there just won’t be enough electronic data to populate these personal e-health records.

And, as Dunbrack further explained, in spite of the major push from president Bush and several private groups, fewer than 3 per cent of US consumers have adopted personal e-health records.

Another concern recently highlighted by online security experts is privacy. Although Google Vice President Marissa Mayer told the press that the Google health data will be stored on new super-secure servers, there are a lot of people out there nervous about storing personal health data online, where stories of identity fraud and insecure password systems abound.

Perhaps, like online banking, people will first test the water, maybe entering very basic information, to carry out searches, store contact information, but enter very little about their own conditions, until they trust the system enough to take a slightly higher risk.

Another great unknown area is how the insurance industry will react. It is interesting, as highlighted in a report in Webware CNET today, that Google’s list of participant organizations that are willing to supply data to personal accounts does not include a single insurance provider.

Sources: Google Health, New York Times, Webware CNET, PC World.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD