Google Health: Advertising to Physicians and Privacy Concerns?

I came across a new patent application from Google this morning which appears to discuss how Google Health, an unlaunched service from Google, might be financed.

The patent filing is: Method and apparatus for serving advertisements in an electronic medical record system

The document lists Eric Sachs as inventor, who started the project in 2006. Here’s the abstract:

One embodiment of the present invention provides a system that serves advertisements within an electronic medical record (EMR) system.

During operation, the system receives a request from a medical practitioner to access a patient-record from the EMR system.

Next, the system looks up the patient-record in the EMR system and obtains one or more advertisements based information associated with the patient-record.

The system then displays the one or more advertisements along with the patient-record to the medical practitioner.

Google Blogoscoped published some screenshots of what might be images from Google Health, in August.

Who might the advertisers in such a system be? The patent filing tells us:

The obvious advertisers are pharmaceutical firms and medical device manufacturers. However, there are many other potential advertisers, and the efficient targeting mechanism provided by the present invention should enable the creation of a “long tail” of such medical providers.

For example, potential advertisers can include:

1. medical seminar providers;

2. medical journal publishers;

3. published papers that have a free abstract and then require payment to view;

4. insurance companies; and

5. medical consultants/specialists.

I don’t know if the Google Health program will be part of the future of health care, but there are some sections in the patent filing that are interesting, such as how medical insurance advertisers may influence the actions of Physicians with the ads that they show:

Insurance companies can potentially become a huge source of revenue because they could use these targeting methods to let doctors know about their preferences for treating a patient, such as reminding them to prescribe a particular drug instead of immediately scheduling the patient for a surgery.

Moreover, the growing use of medical consultants/specialists can potentially improve the quality of medical care by fostering specialization, which is generally acknowledged to be one of the best ways to optimize quality.

Unfortunately, in today’s market it is difficult for medical specialists (whether they be individuals or medical groups) to market their services, so there are not as many of them as there could be.

Keep in mind that this is just a patent application, and the actual implementation and details of the program that Google might launch could be very different from what is described within this document.

Having said that, this statement is what is included in a section titled “Privacy Concerns” in the document:

Beyond the technical challenges, there are privacy concerns about the above-described advertising service. However, it should be possible for patients to request that this “feature” be disabled for their EMR system or their PHR system. However, insurance companies may raise premiums for patients who disable this feature.

Potentially higher insurance rates based upon whether or not you allow your physician to see advertisements based upon your health records? I’m not sure that I like that too much.

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8 thoughts on “Google Health: Advertising to Physicians and Privacy Concerns?”

  1. Hi Bill-

    There are some places where ads are just out of place and intrusive. For example our esteemed city council recently allowed a company to install “park benches” with ads for backs along the streets…the fumes would overcome anyone brave enough to sit in one.

    There are parts of my anatomy that fall into that category. It seems that Google’s health ads would be the rough physiological equivalent.

    Mike Blumenthal

  2. Hi Mike,

    It’s funny where ads are sometime appearing these days. I’ve seen nonpermanent tattooed ads on boxers, and eBay auctions for ads on parts of people’s bodies.

    I don’t know if the ads described in this patent application will ever appear, but I hope not.

  3. Yes I hope not either.

    When Amazon was first recommending books and I had just ordered a May Sartin book of poetry, they made some interesting assumptions about my sexuality and started recommending gay literature on a regular basis.

    I am sure that I don’t want my physician similarly influenced or making similar assumptions.

    Mike

  4. I’m not sure that I want an advertising system to have a potential to so directly influence my health care either, Mike.

    There’s a science fiction novel written by a retired Professor of Mathematics and computer science from San Diego State University which is set about 20 or so years from now which includes some speculation about Google and other search engines, titled Rainbows End: A Novel With One Foot In The Future.

    It discusses topics like health care and the evidentiary use in court of records of a person’s past history culled from the ads that they were shown while using a search engine. A new twist on Google’s book search is also a large part of the plot, in which it becomes easier to scan books by first sending them through a shredder, and then scanning the pieces left behind, and putting the fragments of page and binding together.

    I’m trying to maintain a rational skepticism about this approach to health care, and it’s going to be interesting to see where this all takes us. I wonder what mainstream opinion upon this kind of management of healthcare information will be if this process is unveiled.

  5. My guess is that it will (like the past major healthcare debate) be defined by the well oiled and highly functional PR (ie propaganda) machine.

    Mike

  6. In my opinion this is a massive intrusion of privacy and should be prevented by the government. Google or any other company for that matter doesn’t really have any business knowing people’s health records. Just imagine if that sort of data is breached and it ends up with insurances or employers. There are a lot of possible horror scenarios relating to that kind of venture.

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