Enterprise IT Consultant Views on Technologies and Trends

Jun 27 2011   12:24AM GMT

Google Health to be discontinued – enables transfer to Microsoft HealthVault

Sasirekha R Profile: Sasirekha R

Google discontinuing Health Service and enables transfer to Microsoft HealthVault

Google has announced that it is discontinuing Google Health as a Service – that allowed users to store, manage and share health information at no charge – that was launched in 2008. Clearly these services come and go as per the convenience of the service provider and customers do accept this as part of the freebie mindset. The product will continue to operate as usual till January 1, 2012, after which the users will not have access to current features and not be able to enter, edit, or view data stored in your Google Health profiles.

As the reply to “Why Google Health is being discontinued?” Google says that “adoption of Google Health has been limited to specific groups of users like tech-savvy patients and their caregivers, and more recently fitness and wellness enthusiasts. We haven’t found a way to translate this to widespread adoption in the daily health routines of millions of people. Hence the difficult decision to discontinue”.

Google points out that the announcement is given well in advance and users have options to download or transfer their profile to another service. The users can download the data stored in Google Health, in a number of formats – profile records as ZIP, PDF, CCR, or CSV, and Notices as XML or HTML (http://www.google.com/support/health/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=1241448).  Download capability will be available till January 1, 2013.

Interestingly, for people who want to continue tracking their health profile online, Google’s response is to move to Microsoft Health Vault. In the coming weeks, Google will be providing the ability to directly transfer the health data to other services supporting Direct Project protocol – the emerging open standard for efficient health data exchange.

It is also highlighted that these download and transfer options as the proof for Google’s commitment to data liberation principles that aims at making it easy for the users to transfer their personal data in and out of Google’s services by building simple import and export functions.  A liberated product is one which has built-in features that make it easy (and free) to remove your data from the product in the event that you’d like to take it elsewhere. It seems to come as handy when the service provider rather than you make the decision of taking it elsewhere (still it does go with the analogy of shifting the residence – only that the owner wants you to vacate!).

After Jan 2, 2013, all user data stored in Google Health will be destroyed systematically. Users can choose to delete their profile data before that, after downloading or transferring their profile. When the user requests for deletion of Google Health profile, deletion of all data begins immediately (can take around 24 Hrs or more to complete) and the user as well as anyone with whom the profile data has been shared would no longer have access. But the additional backup copies of deleted information may persist for up to 30 days before they’re totally purged from the system.  

Details on how to transfer to Microsoft HealthVault is provided at  http://www.google.com/support/health/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=1347995 which mentions “Be aware that HealthVault may offer different privacy protections than the Google Health website, so make sure you’re comfortable with those protections before proceeding”.

In that context, it is worth noting the key points related to privacy policy of Google Health:

  • Google will not sell, rent, or share your information (identified or de-identified) without your explicit consent, except in the limited situations such as when Google believes it is required to do so by law.
  • Your health information is stored in your secure account and cannot be accessed by others through a search on Google.com.
  • You choose who to share your information with. If you give someone access to your account, you can revoke that access at any time.
  • Google Health is not regulated by HIPAA, the data confidentiality standards for patient health information, as it doesn’t store data on behalf of health care providers.
  • Google Health Developer Policies (brought in later) requires integrated partners (e.g., hospitals, doctors, retail pharmacies, third party applications, etc.) who are covered by HIPAA to comply with the strict privacy standards of HIPAA for how they collect, use, or share information from Google Health users.
  • The user was expected to access the partner’s privacy policy and make informed choices before sharing their data.
  • When the user authorizes the partners to send information to Google Health account, it includes permission to send certain especially sensitive types of health information (such as mental health or substance abuse records) that are protected by federal and state laws and require special authorization. Similarly, when a user asks Google to send their health information to others, they are giving Google permission to send those sensitive types of health information.
  • The data from Google Health account can be used as part of an aggregated data sets (that do not contain any personally identifiable information) for publishing Google trends statistics and associations (e.g., Google Flu Trends).

Microsoft HealthVault complies with the HONCode principles and their privacy policy as well their stand on HIPAA is quite similar or on par with Google Health. Some points in Microsoft Healthvault Privacy policy worth noting include:

  • Microsoft may use personal information: to provide you with important information about the Service, including critical updates and notifications (or) to send you the HealthVault e-mail newsletter if you opt-in.
  • Microsoft occasionally hires other companies to provide limited services on our behalf, and we give those companies only the personal information they need to deliver the service, such as IP address or e-mail address.
  • Microsoft may use aggregated information (not associated with any individual account) from the Service to improve the quality of the Service and for marketing of the Service (for example, to tell potential advertisers how many Service users live in the United States).
  • We wait 90 days before permanently deleting your account information in order to help avoid accidental or malicious removal of your health information.

In effect, Microsoft HealthVault is neither better nor worse – as you look at it – in terms of privacy.

Google says that the Google health is being retired because “it didn’t catch on the way we would have hoped, but did serve as influential models:” While Google’s privacy reputation (or lack of it) could be the main reason for the millions ignoring the Google Health Service, its failure is being attributed to the inherent conflict between privacy needs and features like automatic prescription refill, fixing doctor’s appointment and asking questions etc., and lack of such features and no tangible benefits to the users,  targeted advertisements impacting privacy, doctor-patient relationship being dissimilar from the typical “social” solutions, health space being complex and counter-intuitive, and not enough motivation in terms of revenue for all parties involved.

Microsoft HealthVault has always had a lead  over Google Health and it is attributed to the fact that Microsoft has a dedicated Health Solutions group with 500+ persons and putting huge investment into HealthVault enabling it to be ahead of Google from launch, to partners and features like allowing feed from biometric devices.

A good report that compares these health services and provides the guidelines for PHR (personal health record) is available at http://www.usercentric.com/publications/2009/01/05/user-centric-user-research-experts-develop-guidelines-personal-health-record/.

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