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Market for personal health records, Google Health, at a crossroads

Google is denying rumors that it’s retreating from its PHR service and says the market is alive and well. But consumer demand for personal health records is still lacking.

Despite federal initiatives that eventually could mandate personal health records that are tied to electronic health record (EHR) systems used by physicians, the PHR market does not appear strong right now and seems to face an uncertain future.

A rumor that Google Inc. was retreating from Google Health, its consumer PHR service, led to speculation that its demise would mean the end of consumer-driven PHR development in general. Not so, according to Google, which denied it was removing resources from the Google Health project, or that the PHR investment is not worth the time.

“We continue to invest in Google Health -- we see it as a multi-year effort and think that finding ways to empower consumers help solve important problems, in health information and beyond, is very much in line with our corporate mission,” a spokesman said in an email.

In addition, Google is looking to expand its partnerships with providers and the federal government to demonstrate how health information technology can be incorporated with the search giant, such as in the government’s new Community Health Data Forum. “As we demonstrated at HIMSS” -- the annual conference of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society -- “we continue working to add new features and grow our ecosystem of new partners with Google Health, and will have more to share in the coming months,” the spokesman said.

Personal health records still a new concept

From a market perspective, investors might be wondering about the value of supporting personal health records when there doesn’t seem to be much consumer demand for them. “We can’t even get providers to manage electronic records,” said Christopher McCord, principal at Healthcare Growth Partners LLC. The Elmhurst, Ill.-based investment bank focuses on health care technology and services. It’s too premature to concentrate on personal health records, he added. “I don’t think it’s a viable market at this point.”

We see it as a multi-year effort and think that finding ways to empower consumers help solve important problems, in health information and beyond, is very much in line with our corporate mission.

Google Health spokesman

Indeed, personal health records remain a nascent concept in the health care world, with consumers slowly catching on to their use. A recent survey by the California HealthCare Foundation shows PHR services are not widely adopted -- but patients who have used them trust their doctors more and pay closer attention to their own care.

But slow adoption rates and lack of consumer demand will change as health care culture changes and more information flows freely among providers and patients. This, at least, is the hope of the federal government and health IT professionals involved in establishing health information exchange and EHR systems. The federal departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense have invested heavily in their PHR system, dubbed MyHealtheVet, and have been touting its success in engaging patients.

That also spotlights a difference in who is using personal health records. Systems that have been developed internally by providers or insurers, such as MyHealtheVet or Kaiser Permanente’s My Health Manager, have their own base of patients they can bring online. Companies developing personal health records for the open market, on the other hand, might face more of a struggle for consumers because of slow adoption rates. It is a slow but sure process, according to David Kibbe, a physician and senior adviser to the American Academy of Family Physicians and principal of the healthcare IT consultancy The Kibbe Group LLC.

The health care industry must “make it more normal and acceptable for patients to have their records,” Kibbe said.

At the same time, the technology must be easy and meaningful for consumers -- much like physicians have to see the value in using an EHR system before they will start investing. Google has tried to create structured data in Google Health that can be handled by the machine and transferred wherever the consumer wants the information to go, said Kibbe, who has served as an informal advisor on the Google Health project.

The approach makes up the “plumbing” for data manipulation. As developers latch on to better standards for translating data, the sophistication of personal records will expand, and consumers will find more meaning in them.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Jean DerGurahian, News Writer.

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