By Marianne Kolbasuk McGee, InformationWeek
Oct. 4, 2007
Microsoft, which has been building up its health-care software and services offering over the last two years, hammered a big stake in the ground on Thursday with new free, Web-based personal health-record tools for consumers.
Microsoft executives have high hopes for the HealthVault offering, which include private health-related Web search tools and personal health-record tools that consumers control in terms of the data that's entered and shared with others.
Microsoft has a "long history exciting new platforms, starting with end users," that have transformed industries, said Peter Neupert, corporate VP for Microsoft's health solutions during the HealthVault unveiling in D.C. With this consumer-centric approach, "we can start to transform the health-care system," which is still lagging most industries in the use of IT to replace costly, paper-based processes.
But, because so many U.S. health-care providers -- especially doctor offices -- are still lagging in their own adoption of digitized patient record systems, a lot of the HealthVault PHR data will need to be manually entered by consumers at first, or faxed as images into the system by clinicians with permission of the patient, said Sean Nolan, chief architect of Microsoft Healthcare Group.
However, a key part of Microsoft's HealthVault strategy is getting third parties to develop applications on the HealthVault platform, as well as building connections directly with providers of health care, including hospitals, labs, and pharmacies, that would electronically provide data for HealthVault consumers.
Among the health-care providers working with Microsoft are New York Presbyterian Hospital and Medstar Health, which operate several Washington, D.C.-based hospitals.
In the case of Medstar, consumers have an option of having Medstar e-mail a link to the patient that provides electronic access to discharge records that can then by incorporated into the patient's Healthvault record, said Nolan.
Also, if HealthVault catches on with consumers, Microsoft hopes more doctors will be encouraged to digitize their own patient records. Consumers who use HealthVault authorize who can their data, including specifying what information is shared on a case-by-case basis.
Among the other partners Microsoft has already signed up for HealthVault are several health-care device makers, including vendors of glucose and blood pressure meters. That could allow consumers with chronic illnesses to have their readings electronically sent into their HealthVault records.
These sorts of activities can potentially help consumers better manage their health, and drive down health-care costs, said Neupert.
Microsoft says the HealthVault database was developed with Microsoft Security Development Lifecycle, as tight security and consumer privacy was a top priority in every stage of its development. HealthVault servers are physically located in the same facilities as Microsoft's MSN servers, but are isolated and locked off, said Nolan.
HealthVault tools are free to consumers, and Microsoft's plan is to generate revenue through search-driven ads, said Nolan. So, a consumer searching for information about high blood pressure might also see ads for a blood pressure measuring device.
Microsoft's consumer-centric model for PHRs differs from the approach others are taking, especially employer-sponsored PHRs, like Dossia, a consortium of employers including Intel and Wal-Mart, which is building a PHR system for its workers.
Although Dossia says its employer members will not have access to workers health data, in the larger picture, trust and privacy questions are issues that hinder consumer confidence in electronic medical records systems overall, including PHRs offered by health plans and insurers.
However, with the consumer being the controller of data in HealthVault, users may be more accepting, said Deborah Peel, founder of privacy advocacy group, the Patient Privacy Right Foundation, who was a speaker at the HealthVault event.
When it comes to using digitized personal health records, "there's no way consumers will do this unless they control the data," she said.
But not everyone is so sure consumers are even looking to manage their health data electronically. "There's a need, but not a want," said Liz Boehm, a principle analyst at Forrester Research. A recent Forrester study found that only 20% of consumers say they want to track their health information electronically.
While consumers might be more trusting with an approach that has them strictly controlling input and access of health data, Boehm said the Microsoft model lacks incentives for consumers to use the tool. Employer-sponsored PHR efforts and particularly health-plan PHRs frequently offer user incentives like discounts on premiums.
Employer-sponsored efforts like Dossia don't necessarily compete with the consumer-centric approach that Microsoft is taking with HealthVault, said Microsoft's Nolan. In fact, Dossia and Microsoft are discussing possible ways of working together, he said.
While Microsoft is the latest to offer a consumer-centric electronic health tools, it's certainly not the first.
In April, Revolution Health Group, financed by AOL founder Steve Case, launched its consumer health portal which offers content, wellness tools as well as a personal health record, in which users enter data.
However, Revolution Health also has an alliance with drug benefits management company Medco, which is providing electronic health data for a new Revolution Health employer-sponsored PHR offering, said Revolution Health executive VP Ronald Klain. Revolution Health has signed "a couple" of employers that will soon announce that they're providing their workers with PHRs via Revolution Health, he said.
Klain says Revolution Health's employer-market offering -- not its consumer portal -- is a closer competitor to Microsoft's HealthVault strategy because of the companies' similar goals in getting third-parties to provide patient data electronically. Revolution Health's consumer portal attracted 5 million unique visitors in September, he said.
In the bigger picture, competition aside, Klain said Microsoft's HealthVault effort is positive for public enlightenment of digital health record tools. "It adds to the excitement," he said. "Anything that raises general awareness to technology-oriented solutions to health care is good."