Google Health: PHRs Still Need Human Touch

Google has been very good at establishing a broad-based platform for search and search advertising.  However, they’ve always taken a “hands-off” approach when it comes to content.  Google doesn’t get involved in the dirty work of “data cleansing”, especially when it requires domain-specific knowledge and human intervention. Instead, Google focuses its resources where they can rely on existing metadata to fuel their engineering powerhouse. 

Therein lies the problem that came to light this week when the Boston Globe ran an article that detailed the experience of e-Patient Dave (Dave deBronkart) in transferring his medical record info from Boston’s Beth Israel  Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) hospital to Google Health, the highly anticipated personal health record (PHR) utility from Google.  Dave described in the Globe article and on the blog some of the unacceptable outcomes that occurred when Google inferred information from content that was imported into his Google Health PHR from electronic records at BIDMC.   For instance, dates did not accompany most of the information, so Google Health issued alerts that assumed all of the conditions and meds listed in his record were occurring simultaneously. 


The article also highlights serious flaws in using medical billing codes to infer information about medical conditions.  E-Patient Dave delves more deeply into the medical coding issue on his blog and offers a good round-up of the various codes used by medical providers.  These billing codes are imperfect for their primary purpose; using them as the primary metadata to infer a patient’s medical history is a fatal flaw.

So, should we conclude that Google Health is a DOA as some have suggested?  Not necessarily.  But, I think it may be fair to say that Google Health isn’t ready for the average patient/consumer and won’t be until more progress is made in harmonizing the codes and terminology used by various stakeholders in the healthcare economy. 

One conclusion is clear:  given the current stage of development of PHRs, there are opportunities for content intermediaries in healthcare to solve some of the data inconsistency problems.  One new company,  Zweena Health, added its voice to the Google Health bashing to promote its own service that creates PHRs for individuals.  According to their site, they “do all the work” to convert information from providers into a usable information resource. 

Traditional healthcare publishers represent another group that is well-positioned to help solve the data translation and transfer problem for patient records.  Healthcare publishers like Elsevier, ThomsonReuters, and Wolters Kluwer have been combining content with technology to create clinical and workflow tools for years.  Their expertise in understanding content, technology and workflow of healthcare professionals should be included in efforts to develop electronic records for providers and patients.

Finally, medical librarians have expertise and hands-on experience in translating medical information for consumer audiences.  Perhaps it is time for Google to fund medical librarians to take on the work of creating taxonomies and harmonization schemes that would better serve multiple stakeholders.  I’ll forward this post to David Rothman and other medical librarians who blog to get their feedback.

One final thought.  Google likes to aim high and target projects that reach large numbers of people where Google can add value through low-touch high-tech projects that leverage their computing and coding resources.   In the case of digital health records, perhaps Google should take the approach that CMS has used and tackle a smaller piece of the puzzle first, starting with drug information.  Digital drug databases have evolved to a state where they are more reliable and CMS is advancing e-prescribing by providers through financial incentives and promotions.   This week’s announcement that Express Scripts is acquiring Wellpoint’s NextRx pharmacy benefits management (PBM) unit for $4.68 billion is another sign of progress in this arena.  The market apparently approves of the acquisition:  Express Scripts’ stock price has risen since the announcement and has been upgraded to a buy by UBS.

As we wrote last month on the subject of health IT, it is imperative that architects of the health IT software systems understand the content that will flow through their systems and how it will be used.   The same imperative applies to developers of PHR software and tools to an even greater extent, because of the need to translate or explain medical terminology for consumer audiences. 


Health Content Needs to Drive Health IT Investment

There is plenty of buzz about the $19.2B in stimulus money earmarked for health IT, some of it positive (see here, too) and much of it negative.  The positives focus on the improved efficiency of electronic medical records (EMRs) that will improve outcomes and minimize medical errors and adverse effects.  The negatives focus on poor design of existing EMR technology and the reluctance of physicians to adopt medical records systems that require substantial investments in time, money, and behavior change. 

Research Customer Workflow

Both sides agree that digitizing records and automating information flows is a good idea, but the skeptics emphatically insist that the workflow of the intended users be studied before the interfaces, navigation systems, and methods for data entry are determined. Simply stated, health IT vendors need to involve physicians more directly in the design of EMR systems. 

Incorporate Content to Drive Adoption

Expert opinions from both sides of the argument touch on-but don’t clearly articulate-the importance of incorporating health content into the development of health IT systems; and that the content has to include external as well as internal data in order to be “mission critical.” Content-driven systems such as Epocrates and UptoDate demonstrate that doctors will flock to digital systems that offer useful information on an easy-to-use and convenient platform.

We at Health Content Advisors have been involved in transforming print-based content to online information tools for over 20 years and have been living by the mantra that technology + content = “data that can do stuff”.  For instance, we have witnessed the productivity-enhancing benefits of transforming a print buyers guide into an online e-commerce site that not only helps buyers find the right goods and services, but also includes tools that compress the sales cycle.  So we understand that digital information systems in the health industry will lead to better health outcomes and more efficient delivery of healthcare. But it will happen more quickly if physicians and content providers are more directly involved in design and implementation of EMR systems, and if content drives the technology.

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