Lessons from Google Health

As Google announced the end of Google Health last week, a little over three years since its launch in May 2008 promised to revolutionise health records management, thousands of health consumers might well have wondered what this means for the future of their personal electronic health records.

The answer to that, says Google, is that they can download their records for use elsewhere. Google says that it is ending Google Health because of a lack of adoption by users. In the blog post, Aaron Brown, Senior Product Manager, Google Health says:

“When we launched Google Health, our goal was to create a service that would give people access to their personal health and wellness information. We wanted to translate our successful consumer-centered approach from other domains to healthcare and have a real impact on the day-to-day health experiences of millions of our users.

“Now, with a few years of experience, we’ve observed that Google Health is not having the broad impact that we hoped it would. There has been adoption among certain groups of users like tech-savvy patients and their caregivers, and more recently fitness and wellness enthusiasts. But we haven’t found a way to translate that limited usage into widespread adoption in the daily health routines of millions of people. That’s why we’ve made the difficult decision to discontinue the Google Health service.”

What’s new at Google Health?

So was Google Health ahead of its time? Perhaps, but then Google’s rise to its current position dominating search in the Western World did not happen overnight, either.

Microsoft HealthVault Extends Reach

Meanwhile, just a few weeks ago, Microsoft’s online health records system HealthVault extended its reach by launching a mobile service and adding support for developers to build third-party mobile apps for Microsoft Windows Phone 7, Google Android and Apple iOS devices to connect with the system.

Microsoft HealthVault Mobile App

In Microsoft’s MSDN developer blog, Steve Nolan explains why this move to mobile is the key step to engaging consumers:

It’s become completely obvious that mobile devices are rapidly taking over as the primary way that folks communicate and compute in their daily lives. This makes complete sense for health, where virtually all meaningful activity happens away from our laptops: office visits, emergencies, workouts, daily glucose testing, sleeping, you name it.

Microsoft also added Facebook login integration at the same time; reassuring users that this would not mean an automated posting of their health profiles on Facebook but signalling further integration with platforms that consumers are using to discuss health matters. These proactive steps by Microsoft, who launched HealthVault some six months before Google Health was established, will continue to help them engage consumers at the right time and place.

What’s missing from online electronic health records?

At a PharmaTimes event in London this week I asked Dr Felix Jackson, Medical Director of medCrowd, the newly-launched collaborative online problem-solving tool for professionals in healthcare, why he feels online electronic health records systems like Google Health have struggled to gain traction.

Until online health systems are integrated properly with existing healthcare systems, such as EMIS, the patient records system used by most GPs in the UK, or with your NHS record through the Connecting for Health Directive, then your data is isolated so you have to input it yourself, manually. And that means even getting it back to your doctor is difficult.

I know with Google Health you could print out reports or graphs, or take your laptop in to your doctor, but I think until it’s actually integrated with your real healthcare record, it’s never going to be that fantastic.

Collaborating with healthcare providers

If it’s true that the primary hindrance to mass adoption of online health records is the successful integration with existing healthcare systems, this will depend on the willingness of healthcare providers to integrate systems. I asked Dr Jackson, as a medic, whether he feels the will exists to achieve this systems integration.

Yes. The NHS and the UK Government are working on making data accessible and portable. You have initiatives like Snomed CT, looking at standardising taxonomies people use so you can compare across health systems; ICT10, the global approach to the same thing; and HL7 which is looking at making data interoperable between database systems.

All of those initiatives are very strongly supported by, and often directly funded by, governments and worldwide health organizations. They will make a huge difference, but they will take a long time. It will take years for this to come together.

I asked Dr Jackson, since the Internet has globalized access to health information, will there come a day when a health consumer, or patient, can literally take their health record anywhere in the world?

Totally. From the patient perspective it’s even more important. Applications that allow patients to collect and track their own data, like Nike Plus; or Withings, with weight scales that connect to your iPhone and provide the data online, are going to huge, because they give people a way to collect and track their own health and wellness. I put my money on the fact that it will be the consumer, or the patient, who is going to drive more change than, say, the big NHS systems. And in time we will see that the doctors, if they don’t catch up, will be eliminated from that. And they’ll be getting these reports from systems like patientslikeme or whatever that patients have gone off and set up on their own, bought monitoring devices out of their own salary, and they’ll be monitoring their own healthcare and providing that back to their doctor in a managed package when they choose to go and see their doctor.

Holistic engagement

Finally, I asked Dr Jackson whether he thinks the end of Google Health is a great loss?

For Europe, no. But as things go, yes. Google provide a lot of good things. Their motive is clear – to get people onto the Internet. If they can provide a fantastic free service that can open up healthcare, then that’s great.

But if the issues can be sorted out, then I’d imagine that either Google will kick it off again, or others will come into that space.It’s quite clear that every patient should have a secure electronic record securely kept in the cloud, so that any doctor can access their information immediately.

The lesson for the rest of us, surely, is that successful healthcare engagement cannot simply focus on one group of stakeholders – whether patients, healthcare professionals, payers or providers; but should rather be a holistic strategy that considers the needs and behaviour of all stakeholders.

Creation Healthcare is a global engagement strategy consultancy advising pharmaceutical companies about improving business and health outcomes. To find out how we could help you, contact us.


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