On Monday, Google made these personal health record, or PHR, tools publicly available to anyone.
For years, the Cleveland Clinic has provided its patients with electronic access to their health information via the clinic's MyChart initiative. But back in February, the clinic and Google announced that 1,600 MyChart patients were involved with a pilot in which they could add information online about their medical histories and conditions.
That's because like most Americans who get their health care from multiple providers -- specialists, family physicians, dentists, eye doctors, and so on -- many Cleveland Clinic patients also receive their care from multiple providers, many of whom may not be part of the clinic.
By having a Google Health account, Cleveland Clinic patients who were part of the pilot -- and now any patient anywhere -- have the ability to enter medical information into their Google PHR, whether it be about treatments they're receiving from other doctors, medical history, allergies, or the drugs doctors have prescribed to them.
Third-party alliances are a big part of Google Health -- a number of health care players have signed on to provide electronic data to the Google PHRs. Users can choose to go to links and request that data be inputted to their Google PHR from third parties, including pharmacy chains like CVS, Walgreens, and Longs Drugs, as well as testing laboratory Quest Diagnostics. Other partners include prescription drug management and mail order companies Medco and RxAmerica.
"You can request to have a history, new and refill prescription transmitted to your record ongoing -- it's purely electronic and it can be turned on and off" at the Google Health user's discretion, said Michael Laddon, CIO of Longs Drugs.
Also, if patients want to share medical information from their Google PHRs with their doctors, Google can "push" the data to the health care provider at the request of the patients.
"At the Cleveland Clinic, I can see the source of the information" that's providing data from the patient's Google PHR, said Dr. C. Martin Harris, CIO of the Cleveland Clinic. So if a patient entered the information into the Google PHR, the data will be denoted as such. However, if it's data from another care provider, such as prescription data from a pharmacy, that source will be identified, too.
"This relieves the burden on patients to be their own medical librarian and historian," said Harris.
In addition to the Cleveland Clinic, other large health care providers that have signed on as partners to provide data to the patient PHRs include Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and CVS MinuteClinics.
Users have "complete control" over the information in their Google Health personal health records, said Missy Krasner, Google Health's product marketing manager. "Right now, we will never sell user data," said Krasner, adding that Google "currently" has no plan to advertise in Google Health.
There are "no current blue prints" to open the site to advertising, she said.
Right now, users have the choice of sharing "all or none" of their Google PHR information with specific parties, like doctors. However, in the future, Google likely will allow users to decide what pieces of information from their PHR they'd like to share, said Krasner.
Mary Adams, a 45-year-old Cleveland Clinic patient who participated in the clinic's pilot with Google, said she likes the ability to go online and manage her health information, especially since not all of her health care is provided by Cleveland Clinic physicians. "I was traveling out of town recently, and I was able to pull up prescription information" that she wanted to share about a drug that she couldn't recall offhand, she said.
"I can better manage my health care," using these PHR tools, she said. Adams said she's read Google's privacy statement and admits to having "small concerns," about security and privacy. However, Adams said she feels the risks to her privacy "are small" compared with the benefits she thinks she gets in using the Google tools to maintain her health records online.
"I'm in IT," she said, acknowledging that her line of work might contribute to her comfort level in using the electronic PHR.