Why Google Health failed: Too little, too soon

Widespread use of personal health record systems is still five years out

Google's online personal health record (PHR) service failed because of its relative obscurity and lack of capabilities, according to health care industry experts.

Google said late last week it would shutter Google Health on Jan. 1, 2012, since the PHR service has failed to gain widespread adoption.

While it offered people a way to store health information in a centralized online location, Google Health was mainly an aggregation service with little to offer mainstream consumers other than an online scrapbook of medical information. Google itself admitted that adoption was mainly among tech-savvy patients and fitness enthusiasts.

"We haven't found a way to translate that limited usage into widespread adoption in the daily health routines of millions of people," Google said in its blog post about the service.

Google launched a beta of Google Health in mid-2008 as a rival to Microsoft's HealthVault personal health record service.

IDC Health Insights analyst Lynne Dunbrack said Google Health failed for a number of reasons, though the biggest was that people were unaware that it even existed because of ineffective marketing.

In a consumer survey earlier this year, only 7% of the respondents indicated they'd ever used a personal health record service -- and 50.6% said they'd never even been exposed to the idea of one.

"It's not something that a person wakes up in the morning and says, 'Hey, I need one of these things,'" said Dunbrack. "People would have to Google to find Google Health."

In contrast, with its deep reach into the corporate market, Microsoft was able to market its HealthVault PHR to other sponsors, such as Siemens and Canada's second largest telecom provider, Telus, allowing those companies to rebrand and resell the service to their customers.

"In the U.K., Microsoft went on a direct marketing approach to get the service closer to consumers," Dunbrack said.

In 2009, Google Health gained some traction when it partnered with CVS pharmacies and made it possible for the drugstore chain's customers to import their prescription histories into Google Health records. Google had similar agreements with SureScripts, National Pharmacy, Walgreens and Longs Drugs. While the pharmacy partnerships allowed Google Health to aggregate more data, the deals did little to address an even more crucial challenge: the need to partner with healthcare providers, according to Chilmark Research.

"Google Health needed to fully connect with the healthcare community, the doctors, the hospitals etc. -- the ones holding the data," Chilmark said in an online commentary. "Google also struggled to sign additional partners to create a richer ecosystem and was way behind Microsoft in importing biometric data."

Dunbrack said that IDC surveys show users of PHR systems want three primary capabilities: access to laboratory test results, the ability to communicate with physicians online and the ability to schedule appointments.

"Many PHRs have been nothing more than medical scrapbooks, and the biggest challenge for Google Health is they had a fairly limited number of data sources," she said.

IDC's survey indicated that of those who had used a PHR service, only 47.6% were still doing so. However, 28% indicated that they would use a PHR system if their physician recommended doing so. That, said Dunbrack, is the main difference between Google Health and other services such as Dossia and Microsoft's HealthVault.

Dossia is an employer-backed service created and offered by Fortune 500 companies such as Applied Materials, AT&T, BP America, Cardinal Health, Intel, Pitney Bowes, Wal-Mart and Vanguard Health Systems. Those companies offer the PHR service as part of their health insurance plans for a small fee, allowing employees to securely communicate their personal health information with care providers.

While Dossia allows secure sharing of personal health information between patients, physician practices and hospitals and offers patient alerts, it does not yet offer direct, secure communication services.

Last year, Microsoft's HealthVault launched Community Connect, which offered a limited use license of Microsoft SharePoint Server and Microsoft Amalga to create a physician and patient portal that aids the secure sharing of information between hospitals, physicians and patients. That means patients could send and receive encrypted emails and alerts with healthcare providers.

Personal health record systems are expected to take the same development trajectory as online banking, starting with simple access to data, such as bank account balances, followed by the ability to share information and make data transfers in real time. Widespread adoption of PHR systems isn't expected for another five years.

"If you look at online banking, now I can pay bills and move money around to various accounts. There are bill alerts that provide a link for a consumer to pay. I can act on the information," Dunbrack said. "If a PHR was more actionable, such as [offering] alerts to lab results or for medical screenings and appointments... then consumers would have a reason to use PHRs."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His email address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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