Google Health Dies As We Become “Digital Junkies”?

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Screenshot from Massive Health homepage

In the past month or so since Google announced the demise of Google Health, there has been a swell of people wanting to know, or rather, try and explain why that decision was made. Google announced in its June 24th blog post, citing low adoption and difficulty attracting industry partners.

But wait, I thought our country just spent $80 billion in health IT in 2010, trying to empower patients to take charge and engage in their own health and doctors to better interact with those patients? There is a disconnect, and a signal to the health IT community that perhaps we aren’t ready to take charge of our health. After all, the only real Google Health users were tech-savvy early adopters.

Other industries already have successful case studies of IT adoption and based on their examples, it is easier to ask why healthcare is so far behind. One comparison has been made to the car industry, showing that a Lexus has better IT support throughout the supply chain and can be fixed more efficiently. Another comparison has been made to the financial industry, showing that we can simply go to mint.com to view custom personal finance reports created using data pulled from our investments, checking accounts, loans, and credit cards. These processes require little effort on behalf of the institutions or the beneficiaries for the transactions to take place. They work. Quickly. People use them.

With Personal Health Records, it just takes way too much effort in order to get a picture anything close to what mint.com can do for your finances. But, maybe Google Health was just a few years ahead of its time. That would explain why Google is currently unwilling to release its code and let the open-source community keep it running.

After-all, the frequent use of high-tech by the average US consumer is becoming the norm. A July 2011 study by McKinsey highlights that “nearly 50 percent of US online consumers are now advanced users of smartphones, social networks, and other emerging tools—up from 32 percent in 2008.” This digital engagement extends into healthcare. Even back in 2009, Pew Research noted that “61 percent of American adults had looked online for health information.” Doctors are using the web too in greater numbers, and in 2010, Manhattan Research found that “81 percent of physicians will use smart phones by 2012.”

The thing is, as the McKinsey study points out, more American consumers are using mobile devices and social networks, but it is the “digital junkies” that are growing users as a segment. That segment is generally young men, which also happens to be the healthiest demographic. So Personal Health Records and other mobile health apps are most utilized by people that are generally healthy as a population. Hopefully this doesn’t become a digital divide where the healthy stay healthy and the sick get sicker?

The way to move forward will most certainly involved figuring out how to target the “traditionalists” and “on-the-go workers”, and also those with less education and lower income and those with chronic illnesses, who have limited digital engagement but are in need of tools to get and stay healthy. It should not be assumed that anyone will suddenly pick up their mobile devices or laptops to manage their health just because a tool is there.

Inevitably, there must be a learned behavior and a cultural shift that must occur.

The first step, clearly, is building up the infrastructure to support electronic health records in doctor’s offices across the nation using reasonable standards. This is being done through policy and investment.

The next step, and where I see room for improvement, is in how the experience is being designed for the consumer, the beneficiary, the one who may not be digitally savvy but wants an easy way to manage their care alongside their physician. The medical home model is a good start, but I think it will require more.

Unless the experience of receiving care and obtaining records and managing care sustainably and efficiently is changed so that user design and interaction is taken into account at every step, I don’t think there will ever be widespread adoption of Personal Health Records.

The good news is that I have seen some good examples of well-designed user experiences. Check out Seattle Children’s Patient Information System. Their solution “brings together the story of a patient from multiple sources and provides status cues that are tailored to the user’s role to help prioritize work. And rather than replacing the personal communication with technology, the whole concept solution was made people-centric to augment vital human connections.” Also, in the realm of personal health management, stay tuned for Massive Health, a Silicon Valley start-up aimed at giving healthcare a design renaissance. You can also submit your own ideas via edits to O-Reilly’s book in progress right now, which provides a decent overview of the problems in healthcare right now from an IT and user perspective.

Do you think healthcare needs a design renaissance?