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IBM's Shot in the Arm for Google Health Tech

Healthcare and IT

Google frequently states its grand ambitions to organize all the world's information, but even the search giant needs help when it comes to the daunting challenge of providing patients with universal online access to their medical records.

That help is coming from IBM, which announced a partnership designed to help streamline information access for users of the Google Health service.

The news comes amid growing scrutiny of the high cost of healthcare, and how IT can help drive down the expense while reducing medical errors. The massive economic stimulus bill now being debated in Congress includes a sizable lump of cash dedicated to IT healthcare initiatives.

A large part of the problem they aim to tackle stems from the notoriously paper-bound hospital system, which makes the portability of records a major challenge for consumers and providers.

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and others, notably Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) with its HealthVault, have pushed personal online health accounts as a way to give consumers access to updated medical records, including such items as medical procedures and current prescriptions, regardless of any change in provider.

Now, Google hopes to expand the utility of its free service by teaming with IBM and the Continua Health Alliance, an advocacy group focused on the adoption of online "telehealth" solutions based on open standards. IBM is providing software that ties into personal medical devices used for patient monitoring, screening and routine evaluation. Those devices can then automatically stream data results into a patient's Google Health Account or other personal health record (PHR).

The goal is to ensure to consumers health records are always current and accurate. Once stored in a PHR, the data can also be shared with physicians and other members of the extended care network at a user's discretion.

"Our partnership with IBM will help both providers and users gain access to their device data in a highly simplified and automated fashion," Sameer Samat, Google Health's director, said in a statement. "IBM has taken an important step in providing software that enables device manufacturers and hospitals to easily upload recorded data into a PHR platform."

Google spokespeople were not available for additional comment.

IBM said it envisions the system -- built on its Information Management and Business Intelligence tools and the WebSphere Premises Server sensor event platform -- supporting a wide variety of uses, like chronic disease management and elderly care.

Privacy concerns

Broader access to this data may be a two-edged sword, however. Along with the potential benefits, there are privacy concerns associated with making patient records and device data more portable, experts warn.

Such concerns have emerged as one of the few major sticking points in lawmakers' debate over the funds given to health IT in the economic stimulus package.

"People are worried about privacy, and rightfully so," Dan Pelino, general manager of IBM's global healthcare and life sciences industry group, told InternetNews.com.

But Pelino argued that the best solution is the standards-based approach Google and IBM are taking, which he said allow for more widely applicable security, while at the same time freeing technology vendors to focus on improving other features.

"If we don't have standards, we'll never get the benefit of lower-cost health models," he added. Pelino said IBM has been flooded with calls from companies wanting to work with the new system. "We're talking with Medtronic, Philips -- all the big-name medical device makers and others that say they welcome this."