Google Health launched in May 2008 on the heels of a successful two-month pilot at Cleveland Clinic and was received with optimism. As an Electronic/Personal Health Record (PHR) product, Google Health was developed to allow consumers the ability to manage their personal health information electronically – giving them greater insight into information that was previously stored in disparate clinic or physician records. As is common in the tech space, expectations for the service were high from the start despite numerous roadblocks that Google would have to overcome.

Flash forward three years… Google recently announced that they would discontinue the Google Health service as of January 1, 2012 citing low adoption and difficulty attracting industry partners. This week’s Health Digital Check-up will analyze why Google Health was unable to live up to its expectations, key learnings and the path forward.

Awareness & Adoption

If you ask 10 of your closest friends what they think about Google Health shutting down, chances are most of them would tell you they weren’t aware of the product to begin with. When Google Health launched in May 2008, there was only a small segment of the population that was interested in adopting digital tools to manage their health and that hasn’t changed much over the past three years. As Missy Kramer, former founding member of Google Health and Senior Advisor to David Brailer, National Coordinator for Health IT, Office of the National Coordinator, writes on The Health Care Blog, “In their current form, PHRs strive to do too much and as a result do not have enough functionality to appeal to a broad array of users.” Tracking and sharing data via personal health tools remains popular amongst pockets of high-engaged patients and caregivers, and while these numbers are growing, they are not yet mainstream activities.

Lack of Connectivity

Connectivity is a common problem when it comes to digital health initiatives at every level, whether we’re talking about a universal health record for an entire jurisdiction or the ability to move your personal health information from one physician to another. In the case of Google Health, there weren’t enough third-party sources allowing patient data to be imported to Google Health, with the exception of a handful of big name providers. In addition, the extra step of having to add your own data to the system (instead of being automated), plus the need to interpret your health information (think about the mix of medical terms and physician written notes for the lay person), probably added to the challenge and reduced the motivation for patients to update their profiles. Although Google did include the ability to import information from consumer health devices toward the end of its lifespan, this data often did not make sense to the general consumer; even when it is further interpreted by the system, it may still be somewhat meaningless without guidance from a health care professional. The prevalence of “beyond the app” meaningful holistic devices such as Fitbit and BodyMedia is what Google Health lacked – fun, convenient ways to visualize health.

Lack of Meaning

Frog Design’s Healthcare group hit the nail on the head on their blog when noting that, for the patient, healthcare is a narrative – not a bunch of lab results, CAT-scans and tests. Although Google Health enabled users to store and access health data in one convenient location, it didn’t provide meaningful feedback that helped users navigate the complexity of health data. Tools like Philips DirectLife have got it right: being able to access your health information doesn’t provide much value if you aren’t sure how to action the data.

The Way Forward

Even though Google Health has closed its book, during its time it was truly innovative and broke new ground. In an article on ReadWriteWeb.com, Edelman’s Shwen Gwee states, “Early adopters were interested in using Google Health, but it took too long to move. I wonder what would happen if they launched it now, with everything that’s coming out around open and standardized data. I wish they would donate the platform, open source it, issue a challenge or something, and see what others could do with it.” To use the Gartner Hype Cycle as a reference: today, we are in the “Trough of Disillusionment,” where technology fails to meet expectations and is abandoned. As we learn from our mistakes, some businesses will persist and continue through the “Slope of Enlightenment” and experiment to understand the true benefits and practical application of the technology for the consumer. Whether Google Health was ahead of its time or not could probably be argued either way. However, Google certainly had the right approach towards empowering consumers to take charge and engage in their own health, which ultimately could have the potential to reduce adverse events from drug interactions and encourage positive changes in personal health. Unfortunately, despite having the reach and the platform, Google hadn’t quite figured out how to integrate seamlessly into the lives of everyday consumers, which likely contributed to slow adoption of the platform and the decision to pull the plug.

Image credit: Fotos GOVBA

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