G-records vs. G-men

I've written my share of critical things about Google and its plans to conquer healthcare, but nothing quite like this: "Entrust my medical records to Google? I'd rather give them to Bin Laden," read the headline in London's Daily Mail on Tuesday.

Columnist Stephen Glover was saying "No, thanks," to a proposal by some Conservative members of the British Parliament to privatize the National Programme for Information Technology's Care Records Service by contracting with either Microsoft's HealthVault or Google Health to host millions of patient records. The Telegraph reports that the Tories are fed up with delays and cost overruns in the massive project to provide EMRs for the 53 million or so inhabitants of England.

BBC tech blogger Rory Cellan-Jones suggests that this might be just some political saber-rattling (or "sabre," as the queen would prefer), but he says that nothing in the technology world is outside the realm of possibility. "After all, who would have predicted 10 years ago that we would one day see the head of MI6 in his Speedos on Facebook?" he asks.

Even the remote chance of a dual takeover by the Redmond Empire and the Googleplex has Glover's Speedos in a bunch. "The Government is an enormous, blundering elephant, hopeless at running any large IT programme, and incapable of controlling costs. All the same, I believe that, on the whole, it has the welfare of its citizens at heart. Hackers may get into the central medical database--one or two doctors have already done so to prove a point--but the Government is not going to flog our medical records, or try to make a profit out of them in any way," Glover writes.

"The same cannot be said of Google or Microsoft, whatever they may claim. These are hugely successful and well-run companies which, unlike governments, make money out of information in their possession. People who deposited their medical records with Google would no doubt be given assurances that they would not be passed on to third parties. But Google would not go to the trouble and expense of storing such information unless it hoped to benefit from it in some way," he says.

"Here is a company which, through a variety of means, is building up a profile of each of us--or at any rate those of us who use computers. I understand, of course, that it has no over-arching intention of ordering or controlling our lives, and that the information it holds about us is used for its own commercial gain. But it would be absolutely the last company in the world to which I would entrust my medical records. I would far rather stick them in an envelope and send them to Osama Bin Laden or Vladimir Putin."

Glover's argument might seem strange to the many Americans who trust their government about as much as they trust Bernie Madoff, but that's how things often work in other countries. I just think it's much ado about nothing, at least right now. Google Health and HealthVault have grabbed plenty of headlines in the U.S. press in the last couple of years, but they still haven't grabbed many regular users. I've been saying for quite some time now that patient-controlled personal health records represent great promise, but so far the idea has been mostly unfulfilled hype. - Neil