Lessons from the Demise of Google Health

In a rare admission of defeat, Google announced it is shutting down Google Health due to poor adoption by consumers and physicians. The big lesson here is one that applies to many information businesses: You’ve got to understand in excruciating detail the underlying market you serve. Google is great at building gizmos for personal tasks, such as searching or email, but failed to understand the healthcare ecosystem.
The central idea of Google Health was that patients would want to maintain their own health records. That notion runs counter to the fact that healthcare information flows from doctors, who are the both the providers and often intermediaries in patient access to services. Personal health records are critical for billing and reimbursement as well patient care. While patients may want access to their health records, they almost certainly don’t want to maintain those records themselves. Google’s addition of applications to set and track personal health goals apparently wasn’t enough of a
motivator to drive adoption.
Google Health’s failure contrasts with the relative success of Google Scholar. In that project, Google has worked closely with a group of leading academic institutions to understand their needs and to provide critical technology and services for digitizing scholarly works and archival materials. That partnership approach was apparently absent from Google’s healthcare venture.
Google’s failure may show that it functions best as a disrupter. (Think AdWords, Gmail, and Google Voice.) Access to personal health data is more likely to succeed by supporting the existing relationships that a patient has with his or her providers, not by disrupting them. Healthcare data access is more likely to happen because physicians and institutions grasp the benefits of better informed patients and make personal data available, much as banks have pushed online banking.
One critical success factor will be integration of patient data. It’s a problem that exists today at the institutional and professional level. When patients see several physicians, those physicians often do not have access to a patient’s personal health history because of the fragmentation of record-keeping. A personal health record is useful only if it can easily integrate all sources of medical history, including exams, test results, and drugs and other therapies. (Think Quicken integrating information from multiple bank, brokerage, and credit card accounts.) To its credit, Google was trying to solve the integration problem, by having patients maintain their own records. But Google took a bottom-up approach hoping that a groundswell of interest from patients would lead physicians and hospitals to link into the system.
The fact that healthcare is a top-down business in which physicians and institutions call the shots could be good news. Implementation of electronic health records is accelerating among hospitals and physicians, thanks in part to incentives and pressures from the government, which is also forcing the adoption of standards for data interchange. This technology infrastructure, coupled with the natural pressure toward greater consumer access to information, will eventually enable information access to trickle down to consumers.

About Lee Greenhouse

Longtime strategy consultant focused on the business of information content, applications, and services.
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