Google Health: Is It Good For You?


Note: Amy Tenderich, who writes and maintains the wonderful Diabetes Mine,
just did this very illuminating interview with Google Health’s Missy
Krassner.  As you’ll see, she doesn’t slow-pitch to Missy. This is a
sure-footed, tough-minded exchange about the real issues that are on
the table now in Health 2.0. – Brian Klepper

Slowly but surely, using the Internet for your health needs is
becoming as mainstream as shopping on the web: no longer futuristic,
but is it for everyone?  And perhaps more importantly, are mainstream
commercial health platforms from companies like Google and Microsoft
really useful for people with specific chronic illnesses?  I thought it
would be interesting to hear their side of the story.

So please welcome Missy Krasner, Product Marketing Manager for Google Health, whom I was lucky enough to catch up with for an interview last week.

Missy, shortly after Google Health launched last Spring, David Kibbe, former Director of Health IT for the AAFP, noted
that most of its services were “only mildly useful and sort of
‘toyish.’” How have these services evolved to be more useful to people
with health conditions?

“Our strategy has always been to create a repository or a platform
for users to store their medical records online. We couldn’t pretend to
try and guide people around management of their chronic illness. That’s
not our business. We’re not medical or health professionals.  We’ve
created a platform and made the APIs publicly available for developers to come forward and develop services on.   So third parties like MyCareTeam,
which offers a diabetes management program, are able to integrate their
stuff into our repository for health records. We’re still in the very
early stages, so these services are still growing and developing.”

Kibbe also notes that your big competitive advantage is support of the Continuity of Care Record (CCR) standard, which makes people’s health data readable by both humans and machines.  Can you explain the impact of this on users?

“There are lots of standards in the healthcare industry; it’s alphabet soup.

We took a simple approach: who could help us launch with the best
platform for electronic data? We talked to all kinds of doctors asking
what is the minimal dataset that you need to pass on if you’re sending
a patient over to a specialist, for example? And what kind of messaging
format is best for interoperability? They all said CCR, so it was sort
of the lowest hanging fruit. Is it the champion gold standard? I would
say not. Things will evolve. But for now, it’s a great secure way to
get data from one place to another.”

So between Google Health and your competitor Microsoft HealthVault then, is it just a question of who can grab the best developers first, to offer the most compelling integrated applications?

“I wouldn’t say it’s a race just to see who’s first. A lot of it has to do with quality.  Working with high-quality third-party
developers is something Google’s really good at. We build platforms so
that it’s not just big names like the American Diabetes Association
that can drive traffic through our site, but we also welcome smaller
companies that can innovate and offer really tailored health services.

For example, we have a new service called MyDailyApple,
that looks at the medications, conditions, etc. you have listed and
then offers you links to valuable sites that mention the stuff that’s
relevant to you.”

So you’re working with the ADA?

“Not yet, but the ADA could be a good distribution arm for us. It
has a good footprint with consumers. It might be a good fit, as we grow
and get more users.”

What about the MyCareTeam diabetes management application that Google already offers?  Is it mainly a program to connect and download data off our glucose monitors?

“MyCareTeam is a full disease management program with logs for
tracking glucose, meals and nutrition information and insulin and other
meds. You can upload your data automatically using LifeScan OneTouch®
meters, and I’m sure they’ll be adding other models in the near future.

MyCareTeam also offers secure messaging to what they call your
‘provider team,’ so you can list your doctors and other health
professionals and start corresponding with them if they provide their
email addresses. They have to give consent, of course, and the
messaging must be on a secure platform.”

Wait, don’t you offer the secure platform?  Isn’t the big concern about privacy and HIPAA Compliance?

“This goes back to the health records platform model. We’re not in
the business of offering secure messaging back and forth with doctors.
What we’re doing is giving people options to use great services that do
offer that functionality.

For example, we integrate with web sites from the big retail
pharmacy chains and provider sites like CVS, Walgreens and Quest
Diagnostics labs. You can’t order refills directly through Google
Health, but you can import your prescription history, and you can send
data back to the pharmacies via their sites.

The way it works is: you set up a Google Health account, and you
choose from a list of partners. When you click on those linked
accounts, a window pops up and takes you over to the Walgreens website,
for example, where you have to be registered and login with a password
or PIN before you can order medications.

So you leave the Google Health site when you actually make a medical
transaction. This is because the pharmacy or lab is a HIPAA-covered
entity and has to authenticate the ID of the user before they can
administer medications to anyone. Then, when you link back and want to
record your list of meds on Google Health, a window will pop up asking,
‘are you sure you want to share this data?’ So it’s guarding security.
But we’re not covered by HIPAA because we don’t pay for or provide
health care services, nor do we store patient data for providers.”

OK, so what privacy restrictions do you absolutely guarantee?

“We don’t ever sell or share user data with any third party. Once
your data comes into Google Health, it stays with us. Also, there are
no ads in Google Health. And it’s free for any partner to integrate and
add on services. In fact, there is no direct monetization model for
Google Health.

Our model is simply that when people sign up, it tends to encourage
users to do more searches on Google.com. That’s where we make our
money. Every page of Google Health has search box on the side. If you
click on it, it takes you out to Google.com. None of your health data
goes with.”

What about the provider side? How can you guarantee that
doctors will be willing or able to access patients’ information online
— considering they’re not reimbursed by insurance for this, and also
that so many clinics have strict IT policies?

“Good question. Today, physicians are still very paper-driven. Or
they’re stuck with a proprietary or internal network system.  One thing
we’re seeing, however, is an adoption curve. As more patients get
online and start inviting physicians to review their information, more
doctors are showing interest. It’s just like the wave of patients doing
their own research and bringing internet print-outs to doctor’s visits.
We believe market pressure will push more and more medical providers to
go online.

We are working on enabling user-to-user sharing, so that you could
send an invite to your doctor, or your mother, or other family member,
and invite them to view your online health data, in read-only format if
you like.

If the doctors wanted to work proactively with this information,
they would have to import it to their hospital or clinic’s system,
which is HIPAA compliant.

Regarding reimbursement, there’s a big wave of eConsultations at the
moment. People are pushing for reimbursement of these ‘virtual doctor’s
visits,’ and I think this is something to consider given how busy they
are. Some doctors say it saves them time because it saves an in-person
visit. These are systemic issues to the US healthcare landscape that
we’re tracking.”

Finally, it seems that people with chronic conditions like
diabetes could benefit most from these online health tools, yet we tend
to be the most skeptical. So can you remind us: why would we choose to
store and share our information on an open commercial platform like
Google Health?

“Let me give you a personal example. My mom’s got MS (multiple
sclerosis). She’s had it since I was 9 and I’m 38 now. For years, I’ve
been trying to manage it remotely, because she lives in another state.
She’s on 28 different drugs and dietary supplements — all pills except
one injectable. I also manage all of her medical finances. I have to
manage it by paper.  So I have this huge manila folder with all kinds
of statements piling up. My brother lives in yet another state and has
no idea what’s going on, because he hasn’t seen any of the records. Now
on Google Health, I can record all of my mom’s medications and herbs,
test results and so forth. I can even log in new doctor’s appointments,
and she just prints it out and goes in to the clinic.  Soon we’ll have
user-to-user sharing, so I can send my brother an email to invite him
into the system to see what’s happening with our mom.

Essentially, Google is really new in this space. We don’t have all
the answers. We’re learning. We’re trying to be agnostic and neutral,
to create an open health platform for people. The larger healthcare
system issues go beyond our scope, but we’re definitely part of


Editor’s Note: Missy tells me that
the Google Health team is very open to input from the diabetes
community. Have you tried the application? Got some constructive
feedback? Feel free to post it below, direct to Google’s ears.

4 replies »

  1. Nice interview Amy.
    What I am struck by is the slow pace at which Google Health is moving. They really have done little to the core platform since the roll-out. Also surprised that they have not expanded the number of standards supported since the initial release. Even the standard they are supporting, CCR, has actually been modified by Google so call it CCR-G. Does this modification just create another standard to deal with?
    Another thing I often wonder about is that most health info is still tied up in paper. There are a number of PHRs that provide a fax-in service to deal with this issue, but I wonder how does a service like th Google Health platform address this issue seeing as they only deal with a limited set of structured data. Must I, the consumer, transcribe these faxes (or outsource transcription to India) to actually make it useful? Based on Missy comments regarding her mother, looks like she’ll be doing a lot of transcribing herself. Unfortunately, most consumers are not up to this challenge.
    Looks like we have a long way to go and I hope that Google starts putting more resources into this effort as they have barely scratched the surface.

  2. Google,
    When will they host a netflix style machine learning competition for CDDS(clinical diagnostic decision support) ?
    Developers need data(a patient profile db), a target (say improve diabetes or weight loss or top ten diseases outcome by 10%), and a goal (million dollar x-prize). Some simple bayesian techniques can outperform humans(TREAT UofCopenhagen), with a x-prize challenge we can see more sophisticated stuff built.
    So when will google go beyond the electronic record and make it a personalized tool? I want to upload my blood test and get the probabilities computed. Tools that give graphical models of disease would introduce a level of care that no human can provide.
    So what gives, to date I have heard nothing in this direction from Google or Microsoft. Perhaps the only person maybe considering this is Adam Bosworth at Keas (that is something I am deducing from his companies job posting looking for engineers with Machine Learning background). Is that why Adam Bosworth was fired from Google Health? The question here is, is google opposed to developing health Machine Learning techniques (analogous to their stance on not wanting to become network carrier and therefore not actually bidding in the 700MHz auction), or are there engineers on the google health team working in this direction right now?
    I am curious to know. Tools like this, if made opensource, could transform access and affordability to health care.