Examining Google’s Plans for Your Medical Records

A Monthlong Magnification of Google: the Company, the Technologies, and the Extracurricular Activities

If a complete stranger asked you if he could read through your medical records, take some notes and record some of your personal medical history, would you let him? What if he promised that because this is highly confidential information, he will just store lots of bits and pieces of your private health records—he won’t read it or share your information with anyone? Would you agree to that? No.

Google looks to be preparing to patent a much more sophisticated, and invasive, version of this stranger at the door—and you may not have a choice when it comes to Google poking through the details of your medical records.

A patent application assigned to Google in May of 2006, Method and apparatus for serving advertisements in an electronic medical record system, (1) details a method and system for collecting data from patient medical records to serve ads to doctors accessing these records through an electronic medical record system (“EMR”).

The patent application details how this system will scan patient medical records, use information about the patient, the doctor, and the medical facility along with search terms, search results generated by a doctor’s search and the search results selected—all to serve relevant ads to doctors while they are accessing the patient’s medical records in the course of treating a patient.

There are two major issues involved in a system like this:

First, do we want advertisers influencing doctors at this point in the treatment process? If you go to see your doctor with a sore throat and cough, your doctor will examine you and ask you about symptoms and medical history. He or she is also likely to access your medical records to view other medically relevant information such as allergies, medications you are taking, etc.

If an advertisement for a new antibiotic pops up on the computer screen while the doctor is viewing your records, will that influence your doctor’s treatment decisions? Should it? This doesn’t seem the appropriate time for a sales pitch. The patent application also explains that the advertisements are configured to take the doctor to a website for the product advertised, if the doctor clicks on the ad.

Second, and much more frightening, Figure 1 (included in the Google patent application) depicts the process and function of this particular patent. The illustration shows two databases associated with Google’s ad serving (111 & 116) that gather and hold sensitive and private patient information. Who controls and has access to these databases?

Food For Thought
These databases contain highly personal medical histories with information that most of us don’t want to give away. However, this patent application doesn’t indicate an option to opt-out. Will our medical records become part of Google’s enormous collection of data without our consent? Even without our knowledge? With databases full of sensitive patient medical records, what other ways will Google find to capitalize on this data?

1. Patent Application No. 11/443,818, Method and apparatus for serving advertisements in an electronic medical record system (filed 5/30/2006).