Google first made the announcement quietly, in a blog post last June. But the closure of Google Health next month is also an important inflection point for public cloud-based services.
Google's failure shows that there are limits to how far users are willing to go in allowing access to personal information in exchange for free services. Google's idea of using an unregulated, private, advertising-supported business model as the aggregation point for highly sensitive personal health data is dead. Will other initiatives soon follow?
Google's goal was "to create a service that would give people access to their personal health and wellness information," all in one place. It did not provide federated access to the data, but physically moved the data to its servers. It wanted to "translate our successful consumer-centered approach from other domains to healthcare and have a real impact on the day-to-day health experiences of millions of our users," according to Google's blog post.
Google anonymized users' personal health data for purposes of data mining, and famously provided trending information on influenza outbreaks. But it also used the data as a mechanism to sell targeted advertising. And while advertisers didn't know who was getting their messages, the idea of receiving highly targeted ads for specific health conditions cited in users' personal health records struck many as creepy.
Google was also unable to allay privacy fears for the data consumers were entrusting to it. The problem can be summed up in one sentence on Google's privacy pages: "Unlike a doctor or health plan, Google Health is not regulated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a federal law that establishes data confidentiality standards for patient health information."
The idea that users would be willing to transfer personal health record data from health care providers, where data privacy is protected by law, to Google servers, where it is protected by non-binding privacy policies that can change at any time, was flawed from the start. Although Google's motto is "Don't be evil," many users viewed this deal as a Faustian bargain.
While there is an unmet need for an aggregated view of all personal health records, both for consumers and for medical professionals, Google Health was not the solution.
R.I.P., Google Health.
This story, "Google Health: First Failure of 2012" was originally published by Computerworld.