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Google's efforts to engulf the world's medical records will begin in Cleveland.

Today, the search engine cum world power announced a joint project with the Cleveland Clinic, an 87-year-old not-for-profit medical center, that will see between 1,500 and 10,000 of the center's patients entrust their personal records to Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Yes, between 1,500 and 10,000. Presumably, Google and the Cleveland Clinic anticipate that a few thousand patients will ultimately decide this idea is way too creepy.

In any event, the project marks the debut of a long-awaited/long-dreaded online health service from the Mountain View, California web giant. Google has previously said that this store-your-medical-records offering would be available to the general public sometime in 2008.

Similar services are already available from arch-rival Microsoft and a startup known as Revolution Health, backed by AOL co-founder Steve Case.

Google bills its password-protected service as "a new kind of healthcare experience that puts the patient in charge of his or her own health information." The Cleveland Clinic already stores patient records on an in-house database, and it will soon give a chosen few the opportunity to move their records onto Google's servers, including information regarding medical conditions, allergies, and prescriptions.

Naturally, this will allow these patients to quickly access their Cleveland Clinic records whenever they spy an internet connection. But Google envisions a time when its service allows any brave soul to shuttle records to and from multiple doctors, pharmacies, and other healthcare providers.

Yes, many will be reluctant to share their records with a company that already stores their search histories and indexes their email. But patient privacy would be an issue even if Google was a piddly startup.

It just so happens that yesterday, as word of Google's Cleveland Clinic partnership spilled forth from The Associated Press, the World Privacy Forum released a report (PDF) explaining that health records hosters like Google aren't covered by the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

In other words, the laws that govern what doctors can do with a patient's medical records wouldn't apply to Larry Page and Sergey Brin. "Because of the structure of HIPAA, its privacy protections do not generally follow a health record," the report says. "The basic idea is that if a health care provider (hospital, physician, pharmacist, etc.) or a health plan maintains a health record, the record is protected under HIPAA. However, if a person of business is not a covered entity under HIPAA holds the records, then HIPAA does not apply."

When we asked Google to discuss its health service, it said: "We'll get back to you." ®

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