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Google, Cleveland Clinic Partner On Personal Health Record Service

Google says the system is secure, but several groups warn that entrusting health information to an e-health provider opens potential privacy risks.

Google on Thursday announced a pilot program with the Cleveland Clinic that will enable the health care organization's patients to store their health records in their Google Accounts.

"We believe patients should be able to easily access and manage their own health information," said Marissa Mayer, VP of search products and user experience at Google, in a statement. "We chose Cleveland Clinic as one of the first partners to pilot our new health offering because as a provider, they already empower their patients by giving them online tools that help them manage their medical records online and coordinate care with their doctors."

The pilot program represents a tentative first step for Google into the thorny area of health care data issues. It also gives Google a greater opportunity to cash in on the lucrative business of health care advertising. The company on Wednesday announced the availability of its Healthcare Industry Knowledge Center to AdWords advertisers offering health care-related products and services.

Google's timing could be better. The World Privacy Forum on Wednesday issued a report warning that personal health records (PHR) are not protected by federal HIPAA privacy and security rules and that entrusting such records to a PHR service -- the very thing Google is offering -- raises a number of possible risks.

One such risk, denial of insurance coverage, came into sharper focus earlier this month when medical insurance company Blue Cross of California sent a letter to physicians asking them to identify patients with pre-existing conditions. The reason for the letter, critics assume, was to limit or deny health insurance coverage to those patients.

Last year, the California Department of Managed Health Care fined Blue Cross' Wellpoint $1 million for violating state law by canceling or withdrawing individual health insurance coverage following health care claims by policy holders.

Another risk, data security, also bears consideration. According to Federal Computer Week, Department of Homeland Security analyst Mark Walker recently warned a group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology that foreign hackers, particularly those from China and Russia, are seeking to steal U.S. health care records as part of a general escalation of cyber-espionage.

Google claims it will keep user health care information safe and secure. "[O]ur health efforts will help you access, store, and communicate your health information," explained Google engineering manager Alan Newberger in a blog post. "Above all, health data will remain yours -- private and confidential. Only you have control over when to share it with family members and health providers."

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