Google Health Can Fix U.S. Healthcare

Current Healthcare Situation

Google Health

Healthcare in the U.S. is far from equilibrium, with hyper-inflated costs in response to insane insurance costs. This causes healthcare to be unattainable by most lower class and an increasing number of middle class families. Healthcare should be an inalienable right but people avoid visiting the doctor because to them, the impending financial situation is worse than health risks. Still, the U.S.’s healthcare system is one of the best in the world in terms of quality and speed. The looming threat of being sued helps keep us safe though it’s grown so large from being unchecked that it’s too costly for both parties: the healthcare providers and the patients.

Insurance Issues

A free market is a market in which prices of goods and services are arranged completely by the mutual consent of sellers and buyers. By definition, in a free market environment buyers and sellers do not coerce or mislead each other nor are they coerced by a third party.

Healthcare is another story. Insurance companies are the “third party” behind both sides, the buyers (patients) and the sellers (healthcare providers), and are not working for the “mutual consent of buyers and sellers.” Furthermore, most healthcare is not actually paid for by the patients directly, but instead by patients’ employers who are, by law, not allowed to know about the employees’ health issues. This dichotomy is what has enabled healthcare costs to grow so wildly out of control.

Google Health’s Fix

Eric Schmidt’s keynote speech at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society Conference directly addressed what Google sees as “the problem” with U.S. healthcare and how Google could help fix it. In short, put information in the hands of patients to enable informed buying decisions and to rebuild the “mutual consent.” Currently, when a patient needs a medical procedure, say a surgery, they don’t shop around for the best price. The patient goes where their insurance company tells them; Where the insurance company has business affiliations. So informing patients will theoretically break the “employer/insurance payment” dichotomy, disarming the “third party coercers.”

Other benefits of Google Health are clear from a computer science standpoint. Technically it will serve three purposes:

  • Cloud storage — Let the IT professionals deal with data backup and retrieval instead of local medical staff.
  • Information channel — Directly connect patient information to patients and healthcare provider.
  • Privacy — Take sensitive information out of the clear-text paper world of office workers and into the human-free, automated, and encrypted world of cloud computing.

Privacy Issues

Clearly potential Google Health uses will have privacy concerns regarding Google obtaining access to medical records as well as having records available online. IT specialism in general has some clear benefits over the paper trail world:

  • Reduce human interaction — When paper information is being sent around, it passes though many hands in clear text. Most hands are simply staff members intended to help organize office work and should not have access to the sensitive content. Computerized health record retrieval and storage would minimize and automate the amount of human interaction needed, reducing the amount of human mistakes as well as accidental (or intentional) security leaks. Catch Me If You Can illustrates the 1960s banking industry’s similar situation to today’s healthcare industry. Today, all banking is computerized and online. Paper trail security is a myth. For example, George Clooney recently had his hospital records leaked to the press and something like 27 employees were facing repercussions. There were probably many more people that had seen his records as well.
  • Google already knows everything about us — Between searching and emails, Google knows what its users are thinking. They are data mining experts and easily have the ability to learn about most users’ health issues already. There is no hiding form large corporations and laws are in place to protect against intentional misuse of healthcare information.
  • Breaking into an office is easier than hacking into Google — Hacking requires a much higher level of knowledge and is many times more traceable than breaking into an office. If employers wanted access to medical records, it would be safer for them to stage a break-in physically rather than virtually. Local offices also store records in computers and probably gave access to IT consultants as well. Google Health gives the IT side some accountability.
  • Companies are companies — Whether it’s a hospital or an IT company, it’s still private firms charged with keeping our data private.

The office paper trails will probably be around for quite some time but Google is providing a layer beneath it: secure storage, access, and transfer for medical records. From a technical standpoint, our data only stands to be more secure and the small risk of this being false is worth it for what we stand to gain: The free market that was intended by the private healthcare design. Informing patients means educated and mutual consent on healthcare costs.

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  • Phil Harnish

    I think Google might be just the crazy corporation it will take to diversify in this way. Bill Gates and his philanthropy is another notable source of commotion. Google is definitely rocking the boat for many industries: television, print, cell phones, international business… even software (so many services are absolutely free). It’s beginning to remind me of Asian mega corporations–Samsung life insurance?

    I was talking about this with my mom while going over my health care plans (which Google manages). She had been charged absurd amounts of money which her insurance mostly covered. I can only assume her insurance company doesn’t enjoy being billed tens of thousands for scans. I for one hope Google goes above and beyond its reach to challenge the way the system works now.

  • Luke Hoersten

    I though it was interesting in Eric’s talk about how he dodged the insurance integration question. Of course insurance companies wont like this! Just the same as plantations benefited from slaves in early colonial times, insurance companies are benefiting from employers isomorphically. I spent a lot of time talking to doctors about this situation before writing this post and I think once these huge skeptics are swayed, it will be an avalanche of change. Who knows how long it will take for people to change for their own good?

  • ljbuesch

    I agree with some, but disagree with most. When I visit a doctor, I make a personal relationship with that doctor and the entire staff. Sure there is a paper trail, but honestly I would trust the nurse over some IT guy at Google.

    And could you elaborate more on how the fact that someone that pays for your medical bills but cant see the exact itemized bills made the costs soar? I contribute it to the fact that medical companies spend billions of dollars and many years on R&D of a pill, then only get 20 years to sell it before patient expires and generics can make money. Not only that, but rule #1 of setting the price of a good is not how much it took to make it, but rather how much benefit the consumer will get. How much is good health worth to you?

    Saying that Google knows everything about us and that we should just trust them because there are laws is bad. So far they have an excellent record of keeping things private, but just because it’s been their track record doesn’t mean that we should blindly trust them in the future. People had no reason to distrust Enron when they were pouring their life savings into their stocks…

    As far as where a patient goes, I would assume most people would go to where their doctor tells them to go. If a person can’t trust their doctor for at least that much information, they need a new doctor.

    With banks, there is still a ton of paperwork that is created and dealt with, they have the same problems as every other industry. Saying it’s all online is a myth (and maybe you didn’t mean to say bank’s had it made)

  • Luke Hoersten

    In general, visiting the doctor means talking to three people at most. The receptionist, a nurses assistant, and the doctor. There are many more people dealing with the records that patients never meet:
    o The office staff, who are not nurses or trained in medicine and who see patient records.
    o There are many staff members who almost exclusively deal with the insurance companies, and they see all the records.
    o The doctors office probably uses computers to do some of the scheduling or filing which means local IT people are involved and they would have access to records on a routine maintenance schedule.

    The number of people looking at records increases ten fold at hospitals. Let me reiterate one more time: the people providing healthcare are not the people dealing with the paper work. Furthermore, I suspect only a 10% reduction in paper records within the doctors offices but in hospitals and in record transit, digital channels should almost eradicate paper records. The data being sent around by Google is not even seen by Google employees or IT staff, it’s encrypted. Paper records are kept in clear text. Gaining access to the digital information would be much more risky, harder, and more traceable than just stealing the paper records. You don’t have to trust an IT guy at all.

    With respect to your question about employer paid insurance, you have to first understand that most insurance is paid for by peoples’ employers. The employer pays a flat rate for blanket coverage of the employees and then the employees use the coverage when receiving medical attention. So the employer pays the insurance company and the insurance company pays the healthcare provider’s insurance company. The patient doesn’t shop around for healthcare (it could cost $50 for a strep test from one provider and $5,000 from another) and the employer is legally not allowed to ask about or discriminate against employees based on health issues. It’s almost like a father giving his teenage daughter a credit card and then never asking what she’s buying.

    In regards to the drug and pharmaceutical industry, you are right, it’s pretty inflated as well but the healthcare industry has little to do with it. The pharmaceutical industry issues are out of the scope of this post.

    I never said “trust Google blindly.” I simply said it’s inherently safer to store sensitive information digitally with encryption, distributed with intelligent backup, access control, and instant access for doctors. Enron is a completely different situation but I think it illustrates my point perfectly. The U.S. has private healthcare which means hospitals and doctors offices are companies. What is keeping the president of a hospital from corruption, just like with Enron? I think the George Clooney news story also lends itself to this idea: Removing human influence while making it easier for doctors to access it is the main premise here.

    Doctors tell people where to go based on business relations. This is common practice. Most internists don’t have a whole list of cardiologists which they choose from specifically for each patient. They know one or two in the area who they are getting reciprocal recommendations from. Again, a symptom of privatized healthcare. Also, a patient can really only go to a healthcare provider if it is covered under their insurance. In reality, the insurance companies dictate where patients go.

    I’m not really sure what you are trying to say with your last paragraph? I never said banks don’t have problems, I was merely pointing out that banks remove human influence by digitizing a lot of their systems. This was intended to wane hesitation and distrust of computers. The scene from Catch Me If You Can that I am thinking of is when the main character gets information and sensitive material from the bank tellers. These days computers check everything they do.

    My main point: it’s safer to store sensitive information digitally encrypted at Google than it is to store it in clear text on paper at the hospital. Both are large private companies, but why would a data center have less vested interest in your data’s privacy than a hospital? Hospitals store your info on servers too, but probably a lot less technical expertise and security to protect it in that state.

  • Quotes

    Google is everywhere! No wonder It will definitely sort out many issues related to health!


  • yyu