Open source personal health record: no need to open Google Health

Google HealthThe news went out Friday that Google is shutting down Google Health. This portal was, along with Microsoft HealthVault (which is still going strong) the world’s best-known place for people to store health information on themselves. Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault were widely cited as harbingers of a new zeal for taking control of one’s body and becoming a partner with one’s doctors in being responsible for health.

Great ideas, but hardly anybody uses these two services. Many more people use a PHR provided by their hospital or general practitioner, which is not quite the point of a PHR because you see many practitioners over the course of your life and your data ought to be integrated in one place where you can always get it.

Predictably, free software advocates say, “make Google Health open source!” This also misses the point. The unique attributes of cloud computing were covered in a series of articles I put up a few months ago. As I explain there, the source code for services such as Google Health is not that important. The key characteristic that makes Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault appealing is…that they are run by Google and Microsoft. Those companies were banking on the trust that the public has for large, well-endowed institutions to maintain a service. And Google’s decision to shutter its Health service (quite reasonable because of its slow take-off) illustrates the weakness of such cloud services.

Health IT at OSCON 2011 — The conjunction of open source and open data with health technology promises to improve creaking infrastructure and give greater control and engagement for patients. These topics will be explored in the healthcare track at OSCON (July 25-29 in Portland, Ore.)

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The real future of PHRs is already here in the form of open source projects that people can take in any direction they want. One is Indivo, whose lead architect I recently interviewed (video) and which is also covered in a useful blog about the end of Google Health by an author of mine, Fred Trotter.

Two other projects worth following are OpenMRS and
Tolven (which includes a PHR).
People are talking about extending the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Blue Button. Trotter’s Healthevet (the software behind Blue Button) is also an open source PHR.

Whatever features a PHR may offer are overshadowed by the key ability to accept data in industry-standard formats and interact with a wide range of devices. A good piece of free software can be endlessly enhanced with these capabilities.

So in short, there are great projects that are already open source and worth contributing to and implementing. The question is still open of who is best suited to host the services. I’m not picking winners, but as we get more and more sensors, personal health monitors, and other devices emitting data about ourselves, the PHR will find a home.

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