Google Health isn't dead, but it may as well be until EMR adoption picks up

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I have a love-hate relationship with Google.

Google is my go-to site for Internet search.  And like many others, I've been known to waste time on YouTube. I'm a regular user of Gmail, Google News, Blogger and Google Docs (which is great for collaboration).

But Google's business model is largely based on mining personal data, which is why I was reluctant to get an Android smartphone. And then there's the laughable "don't be evil" mantra. Lately, Google's been in cahoots with Verizon in an attempt to circumvent "Net neutrality."

("Don't be evil" doesn't apply to the company's treatment of the healthcare press, either. The link they provided the media goes to a Google Docs login page, though I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to an honest mistake. But I've never been more angry as a professional than at HIMSS08, when a high-profile Google representative flat-out lied to me about what she was allowed to tell the press prior to Eric Schmidt's keynote at that conference. Schmidt, by the way, did not officially introduce Google Health at HIMSS08, according to a different company spokeswoman, even though he demonstrated the product in front of oh, only about 6,000 people.)

The Google media people were quite helpful, though, when I put together a FierceMobileHealthcare slide show last month about Android apps for healthcare.

This week, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company has been true to its word. In May, some rumors circulated that Google was giving up on its Google Health personal health record. Google denied this speculation, saying, "We continue to invest in Google Health--we see it as a multi-year effort and think that finding ways to empower consumers help solve important problems, in health information and beyond, is very much in line with our corporate mission." The company promised new features and new partners in the coming months.

Yesterday, Google announced a new release of the much-hyped but problem-plagued PHR. The update gives users a dashboard view of their health data and some consumer-friendly features like goal setting and tracking for health and wellness.

"So our new re-design better organizes your medical information, while creating a more welcoming place to set goals for yourself and check in daily on your progress. For example, you might want to set a goal around walking more each day or to lower your cholesterol over time. With our new design, you can easily monitor your path to success with a visual graph that shows your progress towards your personalized goal. You can even create custom trackers for other things that you want to monitor like daily sleep, exercise, pregnancy or even how many cups of coffee you drink a day," Senior Product Manager Aaron Brown wrote on the corporate blog.

And, as promised, Google announced some new partners. I'm not going to highlight them here, because, as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter who the Internet search leader is working with. Knowing the company's cachet in the media, the new release of Google Health will merit plenty of pixels, and, for those survivors still publishing on paper, a ton of column inches. Remember, the original debut of Google Health made the front page of many a national newpaper.

For that matter, former Google Health team leader Adam Bosworth, who left the company under suspicious circumstances in 2007, got a story about his unproven Keas PHR on the front page of the New York Times, thanks in no small part to a Times staffer who happened to be advising Bosworth on the side. (So much for journalistic ethics.) Last week, at the mHealth Initiative networking conference in San Diego, a Keas employee confided that the startup firm had given up on the direct-to-consumer approach and now was seeking to partner with insurers and large employers in developing care plans for beneficiaries with chronic conditions.

So we come full circle. A big name--Google, Microsoft, Bosworth (who's worked for both companies)--draws headlines and interest from potential partners. But the bottom line is public acceptance. Google Health has had some degree of success in drawing users in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic, but I believe that is because the Clinic has a well-developed EMR that outputs accurate, useful data to Google Health.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: People aren't going to take the time time to input their own health information and, at least right now, physicians aren't going to take the time to log onto a website to download patient data that they probably won't trust anyway.

What will change attitudes are EMR adoption and health information exchange. The process has to be automatic, seamless and fit physician workflows. Most importantly, the data must be trustworthy.

The "blue button" strategy for outputting patient clinical summaries that the Markle Foundation is championing sounds promising. Another PHR that doesn't actually connect to anything useful does not. The key to the blue button is the EMR. And so is the key to the success of Google Health--and the scores of other products that have been around far longer.