Google aims to apply Web search technology to a general set of health information problems and remains committed to the market despite slow initial progress, an executive said Wednesday.
"We do have a broad interest in this area," Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of Search Products & User Experience, told Internet industry leaders at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco. "It will start with search."
Mayer said engineers stumbled onto Google's potential role in the field by noticing the number of searches users perform with its Web search services for hard-to-diagnose health problems, often simply by typing symptoms into a Web browser.
"Google is not a doctor, but people come to us with a lot of health information searches," Mayer told the audience of several hundred executives, financiers and writers. "There is a big user information need, which we should ultimately fill."
Its biggest rival, Microsoft, got the jump on Google in the medical field last month by introducing an electronic health record service called Microsoft HealthVault.
Mayer, who was named acting head of Google's health business after former chief Adam Bosworth left in September, said her company is also looking to figure out how to create transportable personal health records that give users "a lot of control" over who can see such sensitive documents.
A variety of high tech companies from IBM to Oracle to Siemens have worked for years to transform the paper-based personal health records market. But they face hurdles ranging from privacy concerns to budget-cutting of medical programs.
Google started out two years ago on a service called Google Co-op. This taps various expert organizations to categorize high-quality health and other information, to make it easier to search and find on the Web, Mayer said.
She said the scale of health-related information is huge, with an estimated 2 billion X-rays alone created every year.
The Silicon Valley company also is looking at creating a special layer of doctor and medical-related locations on its online Google Maps service. This could help people find local doctors, understand their specialties or related practitioners.
Mayer said personal health records might be stored on a keychain-size digital storage dongle and protected by passwords. This would allow a consumer to travel around the world and supply their medical records to local doctors in a secure fashion.
"This is a big vision. It's a multiyear process," she said during a brief on-stage appearance. "We are just getting started."
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