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Is Google's Newest Offering a Healthy Investment?

Looks like the pilot program for Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) health records integration website with the Cleveland Clinic went well. The company launched Google Health yesterday.

The website stores personal health information and warnings about potential drug interactions; it could become an easy way to port your medical information to a new doctor. However, the idea isn't revolutionary.

Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) launched HealthVault, its own health-care website, in October. WebMD and Revolution Health also offer solutions to store personal health records online. The difference is that this is Google, which knows how to make products with features that users need.

Important import
Clearly the key to getting people to use the website will be how easily the user's information is imported into the system. Who wants to have to read their doctors' chicken-scratch handwriting or have to type the random generic drug names into a website?

Fortunately Google is off to a good start. Users can import prescription information from drugstores -- both retailers such as Walgreen (NYSE: WAG  ) and mail-order benefit manager, Medco Health Solutions (NYSE: MHS  ) . Even laboratory-testing company Quest Diagnostics offers a simple way to get your cholesterol and glucose levels into Google's system.

The thing that's lacking is a way to get doctors' records into the system. Two medical centers have signed up, as well as CVS Caremark's (NYSE: CVS  ) MinuteClinic, but that can't cover very much of the population. Until Google can get more medical centers or maybe health insurers to sign up as partners, the number of people interested in using the product will be limited.

If you build it, they will come
Even if Google makes the product more user friendly, the big question is whether people will be willing to give their health information to the search engine powerhouse. Because it's not a medical provider, Google isn't bound by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and some people may be cautious about how secure their information would be.

Ultimately whether Google Health becomes the next Gmail or a niche product like Google SketchUp will likely rest on whether users are willing to give Google their information rather than whether the product is any good.

Let's make some money
Interestingly I couldn't find any ads on the website, and it appears that the company isn't planning on adding them to Google Health anytime soon. The service will make money for Google the same way its finance and news aggregators support themselves -- by driving people to Google's search engine.

It seems to me that Google is missing a prime place to have targeted advertisements. If pharmaceutical companies like Merck (NYSE: MRK  ) or Pfizer (NYSE: PFE  ) are willing to pay for TV spots to advertise drugs that just a fraction of the audience needs to take, imagine how much they'd pay to advertise to patients who do need a particular drug.

Of course, some people might feel that the targeted advertisements are an invasion of privacy, and that's probably why Google is leaving them off. While I can see the point, Google has been reading my email for years looking for keywords to show me advertisements, and that hasn't stopped me from using a great product.

Remember -- there's potential for Google Health's partners to make money off the website as well. The ability to import information may be a small benefit, but customers who enjoy using Google Health may stick with that provider simply for the service.

There's definitely a huge need for a health aggregation service, but it's too early to know if it'll bring in rosy revenues for Google or be just another niche product.

Google's innovative Foolishness:

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