Today Google announced the public availability of Google Health, after initially launching as a closed beta back in February. It is described as "a safe and secure way to collect, store, and manage [your] medical records and health information online" and is being positioned as a way for users to control their own medical records.

Google Health is a decent entry into the game-changing (and potentially hugely profitable) world of health 2.0. But in comparison with other health startups, Google Health has a limited scope and is not as innovative a service as we've come to expect from Google...

Taking a leaf from Microsoft's marketing playbook, in announcing the public launch Google has partnered with a number of health services - although it admits that it has "literally thousands [more] partnerships to forge".

Limitations

As of now Google Health is limited to english language and is available in the US only. So there isn't a lot to be gained for those of us outside the US uploading our medical records into Google Health. Perhaps we are better off using a truly global service, such as Australian startup MiVitals (our coverage). Although Google will over time open up Google Health to the rest of the world.

Google Health is limited in many other ways, chief among them is that users need to import their own data into the service - there is little in the way of automatic data entry from your health providers. This was a key issue we found with MiVitals too. As we've noted before, when it comes to health data there are a couple of key issues to overcome:

1) Ensuring that the data is ultra secure and that all privacy bases are covered; and

2) Getting healthcare professionals to use the system.

On the first issue, Google appears to have pretty strong privacy policies - indeed before you can even access the site you need to approve a fairly long Terms of Service page. For example Google is very careful to position this as an informational service, rather than a diagnostic one:

"Google Health does not offer medical advice. Any content accessed through Google Health is for informational purposes only, and is not intended to cover all possible uses, directions, precautions, drug interactions, or adverse effects."

However they still need to convince consumers that their data is truly safe on the Web - which with very personal data like health, is a tough ask. Even I'm not fully comfortable storing my health data online yet.

As we mentioned with MiVitals, the second issue is probably the biggest - and will require integration with existing healthcare IT systems. Google has made a start with the few partners it announced (limited to parts of the US).

Some of Google's initial health partners

However integration is a huge obstacle and one that many startups have tried to solve before, including in the original 'dot com' era. One was Jim Clark's famous Healtheon startup - as outlined in Michael Lewis' must-read dot com book The New New Thing, Clark (the co-founder of Netscape and one of Silicon Valley's enduring folk heroes) set out to revolutionize the healthcare industry in the US via an Internet startup named Healtheon. As the Wikipedia notes, Healtheon "developed software that essentially placed their company between physicians, patients, and health care institutions, eliminating unnecessary paperwork and facilitating networking and communication amongst the three." Although initially unsuccessful, in late 1999 Healtheon merged with the Microsoft-backed WebMD - and today the combined entity is considered the leading health portal.

Conclusion: Google Health Just Scratches the Surface

Google Blogoscoped has a good overview of the new service. But to us, it feels like Google Health is not much more than a glorified health search engine / portal - which to be fair is perhaps the whole point (Google's motto after all is to organize the world's information).

In terms of the market for health apps, it is still a nascent one - but both Google and Microsoft have been positioning themselves well. Microsoft announced their Health Vault initiative last October and in February they acquired Medstory, a vertical search engine for health information. Others in this market include Steve Case's Revolution Health and the current market leader in online health, WebMD. There are also a host of vertical search engines in the health field, including Healia and one of my favorites kosmix.

ReadWriteWeb has been covering health 2.0 for a while now. Check out some of our previous coverage in this fascinating sector of web technology:

As we mentioned in the 'Top Health 2.0 Web Apps' post, much of the current crop of health 2.0 apps are based on enhancing communucation, information sharing, and community; rather than tackling the bigger challenges like providing medical diagnosis over the Web. Google Health is a very good example, as it is basically just an information storage service - albeit a handy one because patients will be able to access their records much easier.

But that is slowly changing. Carol.com (a "care marketplace") and Sermo (a community for physicians to exchange information and collaborate) are two examples of new business models that are emerging in healthcare, using the Web (see the Top Health 2.0 Web Apps post for more detail). ZocDoc, which enables you to make doctor and dentist appointments online (currently limited to parts of New York), is another. Online diagnosis will happen too, for example automated online CDSS (Clinical Decision Support Systems).

So Google Health is a good start, alongside Microsoft Health Vault and the many other initiatives by startups and others who have been working on health data apps for some time. But the real action will be in online diagnosis and when web apps are integrated into traditional health systems.