Diagnosing Google Health

The demise of Google Health might be a tactical retreat, but we need to understand what’s going on here and what it means for programs like Australia’s Patient-Controlled Electronic Health Record (PCEHR) and other commercial Personal EHRs like Microsoft’s HealthVault. On its face, it’s sobering that the might and talent of Google hasn’t been able to serve up a good solution.

There’s no simple recipe for electronic health records; healthcare overall is an intractable system. Here are just a few things to think about, based on my time in e-health and working with medical devices:

1. Presentation of health information is hugely challenging. And healthcare providers and patients have totally different perspectives. Much more work needs to be done on the interfaces, and Google may feel that it’s better not to put off too many users at this stage with sub-optimal GUIs (especially if they need overhauling).

2. Clinical data on its own is near useless; it needs to go hand-in-glove with human expertise and also clinical applications (which feed data into the record, and extract data into decision support systems). The utility of PHRs used in isolation of healthcare experts still seems to be a wide open research field. What will patients be able to make of their own health data? Are PEHRs really only of interest to the “worried well”? Will it help or hinder when patients come to run their personal records through artifical intelligence services on the web?

3. Google is battered and bruised by a string of privacy controversies. While it bravely recovers its position and credibility after the Buzz and Street View wifi misadventures, it is exhibiting fresh caution; for instance they have put facial recognition on ice, with Eric Schmidt showing his soft side and calling it ‘too creepy’. [Maybe Google is going to tackle privacy in the same that Microsoft utterly revamped its security posture?] In any event, the last thing they need right now is a health related privacy stoush. At the end of the day, Google must make money out of e-health (and that’s entirely legitimate) but the business model may need a lot more careful work.

Points one and two apply to all PEHR/PCEHRs.

Designing an EHR dashboard that presents just the right information for the patient at hand, according to their current condition and the viewer’s particular interest, is a stupendous and fascinating task. Every clinical condition is different, and what a physician or patient really needs to see varies dramatically and deeply from one case to the next. It may require carefully characterising the everyman patient (actually, chronic patient, ambulatory out-patient, well person, parent …) as well as the everyman healthcare professional (actually, nurse, GP, emergency intensivist, cardiologist …).

We’ve all seen the literally fantastic videos of the hospital of the future, with physicians waltzing from bed to bed, bringing up multi-media charts on their tablet computers, and whizzing through test results, real time ECGs, decision support and so on. It looks great — but aren’t they all just mock-ups?

STOP PRESS: The build-up to launch of Google+ recently might have also helped push Google Health back onto the drawing board. They may have sought to clear the decks for their privacy and governance teams!