Google on Monday launched Google Health, a long-anticipated medical records service letting US users store and manage their health care information online.
The offering draws yet another battle line between Internet search king Google and global software giant Microsoft, which began offering a similar HealthVault service in October.
"It isn't surprising both sides are going after it," Silicon Valley analyst Rob Enderle told AFP, who said the service was likely to strongly appeal to "Baby Boomers" -- the generation of Americans born between the late 1940s and early 1960s.
"Health care is not just lucrative; you are solving a problem critical to an aging group of Boomers. There are public relations and business benefits to it."
Amid concerns over privacy, Google said it built a secure computer platform separate from its search system to host medical records as part of an emphasis on keeping the health information protected.
"It is our highest level of security."
Privacy advocates however, said it is critical to protect medical information from tampering or snooping, say from insurance companies or employers out to reduce liabilities by shunning those with health issues.
"It's the Wild West online," said Deborah Peel, a psychiatrist who founded the nonprofit advocacy group PatientPrivacyRights.org. "The risks are massive."
Microsoft consulted PatientPrivacyRights.org while designing HealthVault and agreed to routine privacy audits, the first of which is to be completed in June, according to Peel.
"We think it is critical to actually have external proof technology companies working with medical records are doing what they say they do," Peel said. "Talk is cheap."
Google executives said pains were taken to build a system that will protect people's medical records online while providing them access from where ever they might want it.
"No Google Health users should expect to find their health information as search results on Google," product manager Roni Zeiger said after demonstrating the service.
Google Health has links to pharmacies, clinics and diagnostic labs. The service is free and enables people to have electronic copies of information such as prescriptions, lab test results, hospital stays, and medical conditions stored on Google computers.
Users of the service dictate how the information is shared.
For example, a user could set up a relationship with hospital so that in case of emergency, his or her personal medical history could be instantly available to emergency room doctors.
Or, someone planning an exotic vacation could check the vaccinations they have or might need.
"Google, on your behalf, is storing a copy of your records," Zeiger said. "This is a user controled database that Google is hosting."
Google said it will mine anonymous trend data along the lines of what percentage of people with diabetes using Google Health report getting flu shots.
Google search boxes are on Health pages and targeted advertising is displayed with query results, according to Zeiger.
Google said it has crafted protected online connections with a host of major US medical service providers and is open to working with other health care outlets interested in crafting software to join the network.
People can link heart monitors to Google Health so vital statistics can be fed to a heart attack assessment services online, according to Zeiger.
A "virtual pillbox" will automatically send alerts to people's mobile telephones, reminding them when it is time to take medicines.
"I'm excited by this because it really empowers people with getting more control over their information," said Dr. Dean Ornish, a California professor of medicine and founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute.
"Health care costs are really reaching a tipping point ... so the timing for this couldn't be better."
Inefficiency accounts for an estimated 30 percent of US health costs and making updated health records quickly available to care providers is a "good start" toward efficiency, Ornish said.
Ornish was on a medical advisory board that worked with Google on Health.
Copyright AFP 2008