While doing some research the other day on personal health records (PHRs), I came across this article, describing Revolution Health’s announcement — without much media attention — about dropping its PHR at the beginning of 2010. (Disclosure: I worked for Revolution Health in 2005-2006, and now have a business relationship with the company that acquired them, Everyday Health.)

The most interesting statement I found in this brief news article was, “The e-mail did not indicate why the company decided to terminate its PHR service. The company advised users to download their PHR as a .pdf file and save the document for their records.”

Ah, a PDF. Yes, that’ll make it extremely easy to get that data into some other PHR (sarcasm alert).

And that led me to understand the underlying problem with all PHRs today, and the problem PHRs have always had — nobody trusts the companies who offer them, and few people understand what they are or why they should care.

I kind of chuckle when I hear a company describe that a part of its business strategy is the personal health record. I first heard of a PHR back in 1999, when I worked for drkoop.com, at that time competing for the #1 spot as the leading consumer health website with WebMD (drkoop.com lost). Drkoop.com’s management had this brilliant idea that everybody would want — and pay for — a personal health record online. In fact, this was the founding principle of the company that eventually became drkoop.com (as seen in one of their SEC 10k filings from that time):

Our company was founded in July 1997 as Personal Medical Records, Inc. During 1997 our primary operating activities related to the development of software for Dr. Koop’s Personal Medical Record System.

To say that the idea of a personal health record (or personal medical record, as they called it) has been kicking around the Internet for a long time would be an understatement. (Drkoop.com dropped the idea altogether after a falling out with their PHR development partner, HealthMagic.)

But nobody pays much attention to history on the Internet. One of the most frustrating components of consulting for companies today is their inability and unwillingness to listen and to learn from the companies who’ve come before.

Had the folks who were running Revolution Health at the time really dug into the market for personal health records, they would’ve seen exactly what we’ve seen now for well over a decade — nobody’s clamoring for them. Nobody is going to their doctor and saying,

“Gee doc, if only I had some way where I could manually enter in all of this data and try and keep it updated on a regular basis, and ensure that the company I choose to enter all this data in with is (a) going to be around 5 years from now and (b) is going to allow me to export it in a way that is actually helpful, I would be so much happier and healthier!”

Of course, let’s assume that I’m wrong. Let’s assume the 2011 IDC Health Insights’ survey of 1,200 consumers done earlier this year showing only 7 percent of respondents ever having used a PHR, and less than half still using one — which is virtually unchanged from when they conducted the same survey 5 years ago. Let’s say consumers are chomping at the bit for this kind of personal tracking ability.

What will they find?

Poor quality systems that haven’t undergone real-world testing with real-world data. As we discussed back in April 2009, PHRs simply don’t work as intended with real-world data. If one of the largest companies in the technology world with some of the brightest engineering talent on Earth can’t get this right — Google Health, in this case — what hope do we have?

Well, it seems, not a whole lot.

A March 30 article over at eWeek describes how Google is unlikely to move forward with Google Health. Instead, it’s likely to be relegated to the backburner, along with all of its other failed experiments. Of course, Google won’t comment on this, and they never will. Every company trumpets to every media outlet possible when they release a product, but mum’s the word when it comes time to acknowledge the product was unsuccessful and they’re shutting it down (or worse, putting it into a static state with little future development).

This is exactly the lack of transparency and openness consumers are fed up with, and one of the primary reasons patients are leery of trusting their personal health data with a single company. You don’t know whether it’s going to go under, sell your health data (even in aggregate form), or simply decide to quietly stop supporting its service in any meaningful way (without actually shutting it down). You may get your data out, but it may only be as a PDF. Today, there are still no widely-implemented standards for sharing health data records (although that is changing, slowly).

There are some notable exceptions, which I should call out here so that we can end on a positive note. PatientsLikeMe.com — which just opened up to everyone for any health condition — is quite transparent about what they do with your data. They aggregate it, they sell it, that’s how they make their money. And apparently it’s working, since they’ve been around now for many years.

Electronic medical records, like Microsoft’s HealthVault, are also a different animal, because they have tended to focus on addressing more of the needs of the provider, health care systems and hospitals, rather than just consumers. Paying attention to both sides of the equation — how data enters the system and how data gets out — is so important, yet something a lot of products in this space underestimate or pay nothing but lip service to.

I think it’s time to finally put the idea of a global personal health record to bed, permanently. We already have lots of individual personal health records floating around out there, tied directly to our personal health interests. And while it would be nice and more convenient to have them all somehow communicate with one another, companies who own all these individual records seem reluctant to explore the possibilities of enabling such communication. There are a lot of reasons — some valid, some not — for this reluctance.

Perhaps this will change in a more open and transparent future. But I won’t be holding my breath.

Also check out Denise Amrich RN’s article on the Google Health rumor mill, Have rumors of Google Health’s death been greatly exaggerated?