Google Health Expires. What Wasn't Prescribed?

In early 2008, Google Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt announced the forthcoming launch of Google Health, a consumer health information portal. He said the ability to gather and find such information was “the most important type” of Internet search.[i] Another executive that year called the project “a large ongoing initiative.”[ii]

The service, which actually launched in 2009, barely lasted two years. Its termination was officially announced in September 2011, and this New Year’s, January 1, 2012, was its last date of true operation. Users have been told they will be able to access and download their data for one more year, until January 1, 2013.[iii]

What went wrong? There are quite a few factors, any of which alone created a grave danger to the project’s viability. Together, they meant Google Health was almost guaranteed to fail. The following are some of the obstacles it failed to overcome.

Misreading demographics

One of the main categories benefitting from Google searches is health-related industries; in both 2009 and 2010, more than 32 percent of searches using Google were in this vertical market.[iv] But that doesn’t mean Google’s main demographic would be interested in maintaining health records online.

Both Yahoo and, more recently Bing, show a distinct penetration into the 50-plus age groups[v], a demographic fairly likely to be seeing doctors regularly and coping with at least one chronic health concern. By contrast, Google’s main market is younger; a report by Cowan & Co. notes 79 percent of 22 to 25-year-olds use it as their search engine.[vi]  

So while the latter market might be more tech savvy, they generally have fewer health issues than the audiences utilizing Yahoo and Bing. Additionally, financial obstacles may mean many in Google’s market aren’t seeking health advice—and thus have no records to maintain. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a significant number (18 percent) of the uninsured in this country are between the ages of 19 and 25.[vii]

Poor marketing

Many Americans simply didn’t know Google Health was available. There was never any real marketing campaign; if they wanted to reach a younger target, where was the advertising on TV stations geared to them, like MTV, or programs like Gossip Girl? How about in print and online publications that might be appealing to this audience? What were they doing to expand recognition among the 40-, 50-, and 60-plus targets that might have used this service? Did Google explore any other marketing options to explore this service’s visibility, either online or traditional? These are just a few questions Google Health apparently failed to explore.

Imposing on the patient

Consumers don’t want to be medical secretaries. Of the 7 percent of consumers who even tried patient health record systems, one report found, less than half continued with them.[viii]

A major reason is that such systems still require “…people sitting down in front of a computer, grab some pieces of paper from their medical records here and there and entering [these] records on their own,” John Moore, MD, told listeners on “The Takeaway” radio broadcast.[ix] Dr. Moore is a PhD candidate at MIT Media Lab’s New Medicine Group.

This assumes the patient has all the records he/she needs to enter—a big assumption. Besides, what’s motivating him/her to do the upkeep as records change? Google Health did nothing to encourage consumers to maintain an electronic filing cabinet.

Privacy concerns

Concern over lack of privacy on Google Health seemed to be a critical issue. Google Health was not regulated by HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act),[x] which Google Health acknowledged in a blog specific to the topic. What it didn’t address was an answer to what it was really offering to assure its users their health information wouldn’t be accessed, or used elsewhere.

Ultimate obstacle

Finally, Google Health seemed to fail in acquiring collaborative support. Among insurers (which might have encouraged its subscribers to utilize a service like Google Health), it never seemed to have more than three affiliations, all fairly limited in their reach: Harvard Pilgrim Health, Blue Cross Blue Shield of MA and American Postal Workers Union Health Plan.[xi] Where were major insurers, like Aetna and Kaiser? What about support from big pharma, or hospitals? There didn’t seem to be any support from them, or much indication that Google Health was seeking to forge strong liaisons in such areas.

Google Health might have been able to overcome some, even all of these, obstacles. Ultimately, though, the bottom line is it seems the company really had no interest in doing so.



[i] Mills, E. (June 24, 2011) Google euthanizes Google Health, unplugs PowerMeter. CNet.com. Retrieved January 6, 2012 from    http://news.cnet.com/8301-27083_3-20074134-247/google-euthanizes-google-health-unplugs-powermeter/

[ii] Lohr, S. (June 24, 2011) Google to End Health Records Service After It Fails to Attract Users. NYTimes.com. Retrieved January 6, 2012 from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/25/technology/25health.html

 

[iii] An update on Google Health and Google PowerMeter (June 24, 2011) Googleblog. Retrieved January 6, 2012 from http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2011/06/update-on-google-health-and-google.html

 

[iv] Bing Searches Increase 5 Percent in January 2010 (February 10, 2010) Hitwise.com. Retrieved January 9, 2012 from http://www.hitwise.com/index.php/us/about-us/press-center/press-releases/google-searches-jan-10/

[v]  Everse, A. (February 1, 2010) Search Engine Demographics for 2010: Why Yahoo Appeals to the 50+ demographic. Evergreendirect.com. Retrieved January 6, 2012 from (http://evergreendirect.com/index.php/2010/02/search-engine-demographics-for-2010/

[vi] Everse, A. (February 1, 2010) Search Engine Demographics for 2010: Google: a dominant “search” engine and online toolbox.  Evergreendirect.com. Retrieved January 6, 2012 from http://evergreendirect.com/index.php/2010/02/search-engine-demographics-for-2010/

[vii] 2011,The Uninsured: A Primer, P. 10 Menlo  Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation http://www.kff.org/uninsured/upload/7451-07.pdf

[viii] Lohr, S. (June 24, 2011) Google to End Health Records Service After It Fails to Attract Users. NYTimes.com. Retrieved January 6, 2012 from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/25/technology/25health.html?_r=1

[ix] Hsi-Chang, Lin (producer). (2011, July 6). The Takeaway (Radio series) Retrieved January 6, 2012 from http://www.thetakeaway.org/2011/jul/06/future-medical-record-technology/

[x] An update on Google Health and Google PowerMeter (June 24, 2011) Googleblog. Retrieved January 10, 2012 from http://googlepublicpolicy.blogspot.com/2008/05/google-health-privacy-and-hipaa.html

[xi] Fall Update on Health (October 6, 2009) Google Blog Retrieved on January 9, 2012 from   http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/10/fall-update-on-google-health.html

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