Microsoft plans medical-record service

HealthVault is just getting off the ground: Will consumers trust the company with private info?

Microsoft is aiming to get consumers to store all of their health records online. It's a laudable goal, but one fraught with challenges.

On Thursday the company is outlining its vision, dubbed HealthVault, in which a person can view, from one place, their complete health records. Consumers will be able to view information from medical devices, myriad health care providers and insurance companies as well as share that information with health care providers of their choosing or search for information related to their health issues.

In conjunction with the health record effort, Microsoft is also launching HealthVault Search, a secure version of its health care search engine, drawn from its acquisition of Medstory.

It's a bold vision, but one that is probably years from reality. First of all, most consumers don't have electronic access to their health records today. As part of the new HealthVault service Microsoft is announcing, hospitals, insurance companies and others will be able to make such records available to consumers, though no major providers are committing to do so as part of HealthVault's initial launch.

"It's a long journey," said Peter Neupert, the former chief who is now head of Microsoft's health care efforts. "We think it's an important stake to put in the ground."

As with any sort of health care records, there are all kinds of privacy and security questions, though Microsoft is hoping to assuage most concerns by putting the consumer in charge of who sees what, when it comes to their records.

"A lot of what I want to do with my vault is share with a care provider or interact with a care provider," Neupert said. "I don't think it's appropriate to try to get in between that relationship. I want to enable it."

Six years ago Microsoft launched an ill-fated effort, code-named Hailstorm, to manage consumers' information online. Concerns over data security and privacy, coupled with difficulty in striking partnership deals, eventually sank that project.

Similar concerns may apply to the company's health information efforts. Because the new service is free to consumers and partners, such as health care providers and medical-device makers, it's unclear how Microsoft will procure revenue from HealthVault.

Neupert said the company's business model centers on advertising, particularly search-related advertising.

"When I am doing a health search I typically have a need," Neupert said. "The ad is a valuable piece of content.

Microsoft's consumer effort in health care parallels a push the company is making on the clinical side of things, following its July 2006 purchase of Azyxxi.

Microsoft is not expecting consumers to just rush out and sign up for HealthVault en masse. "I don't expect a million users to sign up in the next six months," Neupert said.

Even signing up partners is likely to be a long battle. The initial supporters are organizations like the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and the American Diabetes Association--not the kind of insurance companies and hospital chains that Microsoft needs to make HealthVault match its vision.

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