Google launched an ambitious initiative Monday that aims to give people a central place online to store their health records and then share them with health-care providers.
The public can go today to www.google.com/health and create profiles that include basic medical information such as existing medical conditions, allergies and any medicines being taken, Google officials said.
People who sign up at Google Health can also import medical records from U.S. pharmacies and medical facilities that have signed on as partners, which so far include Longs Drug Stores, Walgreens Pharmacy, the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and several others.
"Google Health is all about pulling together documents from your doctor's office, labs and pharmacies to provide a holistic picture of your health," said Google Vice President Marissa Mayer, who was joined by health industry professionals to launch the project at a press conference at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California.
Google is one of several groups trying to "democratize" health care by allowing people to access and take control of their health records. Others include Microsoft, which announced its Health Vault initiative last year, WebMD and Revolution Health Group, founded by AOL cofounder Steve Case.
Concerns about privacy and security are seen as a big hurdle. Google says it will store health data in servers that are more secure than those it uses for other services. Users will be able to decide who has access to their records and to revoke that access at any time, Mayer said.
Google Health still has a long way to go, she acknowledged. "There are thousands of partnerships that need to be formed and petabytes of information that needs to be brought online and put into the hands of the patient," she said.
Like many of Google's new services, Google Health is in beta, although officials said anyone can sign up for it and start entering their health data.
Mayer argued that it makes sense for Google to take on such a project because two thirds of Internet users rely on Google for searching the Web about a drug or illness.
Google won't place advertisements in Google Health, company officials said. Asked how it will make money, Google sees the service as a way to increase the overall value of its services. There will be a search box on each page of Google Health that takes people to Google's usual results pages that do include advertisements.
While individual health data will be kept confidential, Google may publish "anonymous, aggregated data" about Google Health users, said Roni Zeiger, product manager for Google Health. "If six months from now there are a lot of Google Health users, and we could publish a statement along the lines of '10 percent of diabetics last year also had a flu shot,' we would feel comfortable sharing that data," he said.
Google Health will be linked to some extent to other Google services, which could potentially also raise privacy or security concerns. For example, if a user creates a list of doctors' contact information, the group of contacts will automatically appear in their Gmail account, Zeiger said.
The service is available initially only in the U.S., he said. Google is talking to partners in Europe and Asia, but the service is more complex than others it offers, because of the sensitivity of the data and the number of partners involved, so it will take more time to be rolled out in other parts of the world, he said.
Users who sign up Monday won't have granular control over who sees specific parts of their health records, Zeiger said. Today it is "all or nothing" -- so when people authorize a provider to see their records they will be able to see all the information. The company plans to include granular control soon, but it wanted to launch the service now rather than wait, Zeiger said.
Google Health also includes some third-party services. They include a "virtual pill box" that will remind people via text message to their cell phone when to take their medicine. Users can also research illnesses. A search for "chicken pox" for example, provides results from sources like Google Scholar and Google News.
Casey Kozlowski, Walgreens manager for health care automation, said Walgreens is allowing people to access their prescriptions history through Google Health. And if users allow it to, Walgreens will be able to view historical information such as allergic reactions people have had to drugs, she said.
"As a pharmacist, having an inaccurate or incomplete history of a person's prescriptions makes it really hard to do your job," she said.
Google announced a pilot of Google Health in February with the Cleveland Clinic, for between 1,500 and 10,000 participants. The original driving force for Google Health, Adam Bosworth, left the company last September. Mayer has been running the project until a permanent replacement is found.