Google Health is here — or is it?

(UPDATED: See below.)Well, the WSJ says so in this somewhat breathless report that states Google will announce its long-awaited personal health-record service today.

My first thought was that the announcement was timed to get Google on the record in advance of the Health2.0 “Spring Fling” conference in San Diego next week, which will feature lots of talk about the role of the Internet in improving healthcare. Another possibility is that Google is pulling a bait-and-switch similar to that of Navigenics, which last November “announced” its personal-genomics service but held off launching it until — well, until not yet.

Yet a third possibility — and the most likely one to me — is that, as this CNET article states, Google CEO will merely “preview” Google Health at the annual meeting of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, supposedly the largest healthcare IT meeting in the world. Whatever it is, don’t hold your breath; the WSJ itself states that “[i]t wasn’t clear when the Google service for creating personal health records will begin to be available for consumers to access.”

In fact, the WSJ article doesn’t actually describe Google Health in any sort of detail, and instead is largely devoted to pointing out the major challenges facing personal health records, many of which will sound familiar to regular readers here. These include:

  • Limited adoption of electronic medical-record systems. Only 14 percent of U.S. medical practices even use digital records, which will complicate the process of moving medical information to the Google system.
  • Incompatible electronic medical-record systems at hospitals and doctors’ offices. Because existing digital-record systems use different data formats, systems like Google’s will have to be able to import most, if not all, of them, pushing up complexity and cost.
  • Privacy. Third-party systems such as Google’s aren’t regulated by federal medical-privacy laws, giving providers plenty of freedom to, for instance, sell ads tailored to your medical profile. (Google told the WSJ that “trust between Google and our users is one of the absolute cornerstones of our business.”)

Unmentioned by the WSJ is another nagging question, which is the extent to which patients can “customize” their medical profile — which, when it comes down to it, means the ability to selectively share, edit or even delete information. As I’ve noted before, such customization could undermine the usefulness of health records to doctors, while limiting peoples’ freedom to edit them makes them a whole lot less “personal.”

To be sure, a preview by Schmidt is better than what we’ve seen so far — mostly screenshots of what appear to be leaked early prototypes of the Google Health site, plus a vague announcement of a Google Health pilot project in Cleveland. In fact, the CNET piece mentioned above actually delivers some of the goods, offering a brief description (but no screenshots) of the preview.

Among the intriguing new details: The service will allow customers to “customize” their health records, although CNET doesn’t say by how much; will be integrated with Google’s maps and email applications to allow people to more easily search for doctors and save their contact information; and will allow third-party widgets that work within the platform, such as one that might alert patients through Google’s calendar when it’s time for them to take medication.

It’s tempting to conclude that this steady drip-drip-drip of information is part of a master PR plan for generating maximum enthusiasm for the Google Health service. (If so, it’s working brilliantly.) As for the launch itself, I suspect we won’t be able to miss it when it actually happens. Accept no substitutes.

UPDATE: Google Health chief Marissa Mayer makes the official announcement in this blog post. The bottom line: A launch of Google Health is likely “in coming months,” but not now. There are some nifty screenshots, though — one of which we’ve basically seen before — but I’ve reproduced them both below for reference. (Click either for larger versions.)

google-health-official-screenshot-main-580px.gif

google-health-official-screenshot-profile-580px.gif