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Google Health Enables Sharing Health Records

The health records can now be available to friends, family, or doctors and other medical service providers.

In keeping with its mission to organize the world's information, make it universally accessible, and confound privacy advocates, Google on Wednesday gave Google Health users the ability to share their online medical records.

The new Google Health sharing feature allows users who have stored health information with Google to make that information accessible through a Web link sent via e-mail. Google suggests users may want to make their health records available to friends, family, or doctors and other medical service providers.

Vexing privacy advocates isn't actually part of Google's mission statement, though it's been a byproduct of the company's efforts to organize information and make it accessible.

Lillie Coney, associate director with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., warns that health information is very sensitive and that there could be unanticipated consequences to sharing health information outside of the health provider environment.

"People need to be very clear that once the information is shared, there may be other consequences," she said. "Undoing the sharing may be more problematic than most people would think."

She suggests that by going ahead and making a controversial feature like this available, Google aims to normalize practices that now give people pause. "Google's model is for access for information to be the norm," she said.

The sensitivity of health information isn't lost on Google. In the blog post announcing the new feature, Google product management director Sameer Samat points out that health information sharing links only work in conjunction with the e-mail account to which they're sent and not if the message with the link has been forwarded.

Samat also notes that sharing can be stopped at any time, that sharing links expire after 30 days, that those viewing shared health information have read-only access, and that the sender has access to an activity report that indicates who viewed the shared profile.

Google makes similar points on its Web site, offering repeated assurances that users' health information is safe online and that the company takes health privacy concerns seriously.

The updated Google Health also includes a less controversial feature that's at least as useful: The ability to graph medical test information. This allows Google Health users, for example, to visualize cholesterol test results over time.

Though use of e-records is growing, the hardest trick -- data sharing -- has barely begun. InformationWeek has published an independent analysis of this topic. Download the report here (registration required).

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