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03/05/2009

Hey! Who Wants to Share Google Health Records?

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As reported on CNET, Google is now allowing its users of its online health record service, Google Health, to share their health records with each other.

Google has said, according to CNET, this sharing function was created in response to the need of friends and family members to have access to medical records in emergencies and to keep concerned caregivers up-to-date on their loved one’s health.

That seems benign enough, but the privacy concerns that abound from this technology boggle the mind. Google appears to have thought of some of them:

“Recognizing the sensitive nature of sharing health records, Google said it has built in several security measures to preserve privacy. Users choose who can view their histories, and the link to the patient’s profile will work only in connection with those people’s e-mail addresses–meaning the link won’t work if it is forwarded to a third party. Users can also decide what information they want to share, and those allowed to view the profile will not have the ability to edit the data. Users will also be able to see exactly who has reviewed the profile.”

This last feature isn’t all that helpful–to learn after the fact that someone has viewed your profile and had access to your health information hardly protects one’s privacy. Plus, giving one person access to your health record is only as safe as that person is trustworthy and will not print it, screen capture it, and show it to others. Having health information sitting on friends’ and family’s computer screens would only seem to be a good idea if there were a 2-minute timeout feature, no way the screen could be captured or printed, and a number of other security features that don’t know are possible to build into Google Health.

While the idea of sharing is in principle an interesting one, it presents more potential harms and breaches than it solves social or medical problems. My advice: use Google Health if you want, but if you want to share information with caregivers and loved ones, do it by word of mouth.

Summer Johnson, PhD

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