Google CEO eyes national EHR database

By Jeff Marion
03:24 PM

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, warned members at a Thursday meeting of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology that the Obama administration's health IT plan relies too heavily on outdated database technology. The current plan stifles innovation and encourages the use of proprietary, copyrighted databases that cannot easily duplicate or share information, according to Schmidt.

In attendance were David Blumenthal, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, Aneesh Chopra, Obama's chief technology officer, and John Glaser, past CIO of Partners Health and a Blumenthal adviser.

Schmidt urged the council to implement a national health record database founded on web records and total patient access. In a perfect Google world, patients and care providers would access this shared database using a front-end web portal. Perhaps, Schmidt might suggest, by using Google Health?

Meanwhile, the UK is considering scrapping its $20 billion "Connecting for Health" program, a bid to create a national electronic records database, but currently 4 years behind schedule. The Tory government has rocked the boat by suggesting patients be given the option to store their records with private companies like Google instead.

However, a national records database makes sense, so kudos to Google for pointing out the folly of investing in legacy hardware and software.

Hospitals must currently choose from a rainbow of EHR vendors, each with a proprietary way of storing and transferring data. Long term this system could result in silos of cordoned-off patient records, unavailable for provider transfer or patient access.

But can the same company that brought you "Google Street View" be trusted with storing confidential medical information? A federal report recently outed Google on an $880,000 lobbying tab, reportedly to influence EHR policy decisions in Washington. Was Google pushing for provisions so it could sell patient information to its advertising clients?

"They give consumers the appearance of an effective way to keep their health information, but it's also a digital gold mine for health marketing," says Jeff Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

"It's one thing to turn your search queries over to Google. This is like making them your next of kin," Chester says. "Why would you give an advertising company access to your moment-by-moment expression of health concerns and risks?"

While the computing giant has been advocating a digitized and centrally stored database, questions have arisen about Google Health's capabilities. John Moore, of Chilmark Research, asks if Google Health is relevant, pointing to its minimal development team, resistance towards innovation, and ability to ride a wave of media-hyped name recognition.

However, the introduction of living wills, or advanced directives, to Google Health was a major step in the right direction. It enables users to download a free, state-specific advance directive and store the scanned documents securely online, offering easy access to care providers.

While a national database of health records seems the obvious solution, it is yet to be seen if Google can be trusted to lead the way. Privacy will be a huge concern.

One particularly unnerving sentence in the current Google Health Terms of Service reads: "When you provide your information through Google Health, you give Google a license to use and distribute it in connection with Google Health and other Google services."

Google believes it is an exciting time for online EHRs, but I'm not quite ready to sign on the dotted line.


Jeff Marion blogs regularly at

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