Three years ago this month, Google announced with much fanfare that it was entering the personal health record market with Google Health. At the time, the announcement was hailed as another sign that PHRs—those not quite clinical documents of patient activity—were going to empower individuals to take charge of their own care journeys.

Last Friday afternoon—traditionally a good time to bury disappointing news—Google announced that it will be retiring Google Health as of Jan. 1 2012, while users will have access to data for another year after that. In a blog post, Google officials explained why they were stepping from the once-hyped personal health record market.

"There has been adoption among certain groups of users like tech-savvy patients and their caregivers, and more recently fitness and wellness enthusiasts. But we haven't found a way to translate that limited usage into widespread adoption in the daily health routines of millions of people."

So what happened? Obviously, Google doesn't believe it can profit from PHRs in the foreseeable future, or it would soldier on. And their explanation rings true to me:  I don't know of anyone who uses a PHR of any sort, let alone Google Health. I've often wondered if PHRs, positioned somewhere between a real clinical record and a handwritten eating or exercise diary, offer enough real value to consumers to be worth the time and energy spent recording them.

At the same time, the last few years have seen an explosion in the use of social media by patients and their families looking to connect with hospitals and doctors, to the point that it's hard to attend a health care conference these days without ending up in a session on social media strategy. It's possible that most people would rather use Twitter and Facebook and sites like WebMD to connect with providers and research information in a crisis than take the time to regularly update a voluntary, nonclinical record.

Nonetheless, I don't think the PHR concept is going to fade away completely, given the clinical and financial importance of getting patients more engaged in their health. New Jersey-based AtlantiCare is considering developing an online patient portal that would give their patients access to both PHRs and potentially clinical information in a secure setting, CIO Christopher Scanzera told me recently. Personally, I've always felt that access to real clinical information in a secure setting similar to how you can access banking information online would offer more value than a nonclinical PHR. Of course, it's also possible that if a technology giant like Google can't make a PHR attractive, no one can.

Is Google Health's demise a bad sign for the PHR? E-mail your thoughts to hbush@healthforum.com.