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Patient privacy not the only reason Epic pulls away from Google

The latest development in the Google-Epic relationship may have less to do with customer interest and more to do with growing competition and reputation.

Epic is backing away from Google Cloud integrations, but the decision may have less to do with its customers and more to do with image.

Earlier this month, the EHR vendor began letting customers know that it would no longer be pursuing integrations with Google Cloud and would instead focus its efforts on AWS and Microsoft Azure, according to a report from CNBC. In a statement to SearchHealthIT.com, Epic said, "We are happy to work with Google Cloud when there is sufficient interest among our customers. In the future there may be sufficient interest and at that time we will be happy to move forward. Some of our customers work with Google now in different ways and we support them in these efforts."

But Forrester Research analyst Jeffrey Becker believes there could be more to it than that. Google has faced intense scrutiny recently for its partnership with Ascension Health, one of the largest health systems in the U.S., which has brought patient privacy concerns to the forefront.  

Jeffrey BeckerJeffrey Becker

In November, reports surfaced that Google was accessing patient data through a program called Project Nightingale. Privacy advocates expressed concern that the data was not properly de-identified and that Google employees had inappropriate access to data. Google has said it is adhering to regulations and that the Ascension partnership is not unique. The partnership is currently under investigation by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

The Google-Epic relationship is also becoming increasingly competitive, according to Becker. The tech giant is working on an EHR search tool he said would rival what Epic has on the market today.

"In general, Google presents the most direct competition to an organization like Epic," he said.

Growing competition

Google is building its own medical records search tool, similar to the standard Google search bar, but for the EHR.

Google released a video in November demonstrating how the search tool, which is currently under development, would work. Physicians would be able to type in a patient's name and get a complete picture of the patient's medical history, which Becker said is a "direct erosion of the value proposition that Epic brings to its client base." Epic's Care Everywhere feature provides similar functionality: It enables healthcare workers to query its network for patient information as well as exchange patient information.

Epic's Care Everywhere feature is one of the main attractions to its EHR, Becker said. But interoperability initiatives that include requirements for the healthcare industry to standardize on an API are gaining ground, paving the way for companies like Google to start building more compelling -- and more competitive -- tools.

"[Epic] wouldn't come out and say it, they're saying lack of demand from their customers, but I think it's concern over what Google's ambitions are in healthcare," Becker said.

Becker believes growing competition is just one reason why Epic is maneuvering away from Google. He believes the EHR vendor is also paying attention to patient privacy concerns around how Google handles data.

Patient privacy concerns

Matthew Fisher, partner at Mirick O'Connell Attorneys at Law and chairman of the firm's health law group, said the issue with Google is public mistrust. 

Matthew FisherMatthew Fisher

Fisher said tech giants like Google, AWS and Microsoft will have to deal with public perception and "somehow innate senses of which companies are going to be respectful of the individual data," and Google misses the mark. 

"There's a concern about having Google be able to theoretically build its database through arrangements with healthcare organizations or other companies where you're not anticipating that your personal information is going to be shared," he said.

Forrester's Becker agrees that the problem Google faces is bigger than vendor relationships. He said it's "increasingly important" that OCR finds Google clear of fault in the Ascension partnership or it will set the tech giant back in its efforts "to push into hospital-side health IT markets," he said.

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