Google Moving Forward on Health Initiative

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Just over a month after the leader of Google Inc.'s health information project left the company, the vice president who stepped in for him on an interim basis reiterated the company's commitment to this effort.

Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience, took the stage at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco Wednesday to explain Google's motivations for its health initiative, going over some points her predecessor on the health team and other executives have made in the past.

"There has been so much speculation about what Google might do [in this area] that we wanted to clarify what are our interests and our intentions," she said in an interview with IDG News Service after her speech.

Essentially, Google recognizes that a majority of people begin health-related inquiries online at its search engine, instead of at a health Web site, so the company sees demand for an improved research experience for these users, she said.

At the same time, the healthcare industry generates a massive amount of data that Google is in a good position to help organize and make available to patients and their families, Mayer said.

"We're not trying to be all things to all people, but the majority of users looking for health information are already coming to us. And there is a really interesting computer science problem to solve here with just the sheer volume of data. That's what's made it really interesting [for us] to participate in this space," she said.

By digitizing health records and giving control over them to the patients, they will be able to make better informed decisions, she said during her presentation.

With health records stored in a central server, patients will be able to access them from anywhere, whether they move to a new city or are traveling while on vacation, so that, in an emergency, unfamiliar health care providers can get a comprehensive view of their health history, she said.

People would also be able to quickly and easily share records with friends and family if they choose, she said.

When the news of Adam Bosworth's resignation was confirmed by Google, the company made a point of saying that its health project was alive and kicking, and that Mayer would steer the effort until a permanent replacement was found.

"Google is moving forward with work on our health products," a Google spokesman said at the time.

The project hasn't yet yielded a specific service or product, but, in August, The New York Times reported that Google has shown a Google Health prototype to health professionals.

According to the Times, the Google Health prototype is designed to let individuals create a health profile for themselves that includes information about medications and conditions. Google Health also features a "health guide" with suggested treatments and drug interaction warnings, pages with health-related reminders and health provider directories, the Times reported then.

Google also has given regular updates about the Google Health efforts. In March, Bosworth authored a blog post in which he outlined a series of issues and concerns related to finding and trusting health information on the Internet.

In June, Google announced the formation of the Google Health Advisory Council. In that blog posting, a Google official explained: "We want to help users make more empowered and informed healthcare decisions, and have been steadily developing our ability to make our search results more medically relevant and more helpful to users."

Google plans to offer more details about its health project at a future date, Mayer said.

Google isn't without competitors in this endeavor. Rival Microsoft launched earlier this month an online service for helping patients take control of their health records and monitor their medical conditions.

The Web 2.0 Summit ends Friday.

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