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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Microsoft :The company's new Web site, HealthVault, is it trusted

New day new technology new service, security , trust
Microsoft has long been labeled an enemy of the people--the company you didn't even trust with your PC's serial number. Now the new Microsoft, led by philanthropist Bill Gates, hopes you will entrust your medical records with it.

The company's new Web site, HealthVault, aims to be a central repository for consumers to store their personal health data so that they can share it more easily with doctors and other medical professionals. The idea has become a sort of medical care holy grail: Current recordkeeping is a mishmash of files. Chronic care patients can wind up taking multiple medications prescribed by doctors who may be unaware of one another. Care of critically ill patients gets mismanaged because doctors can't find the right records.

But can Microsoft (nasdaq: MSFT - news - people ) solve this? Microsoft, the company whose personal computer software is regularly attacked by hackers, the company reprimanded by governments for its aggressive monopolistic behavior?

"Those are the same questions I asked," says Peter Neupert, the Microsoft vice president in charge of the company's health group. This is Neupert's second stint at Microsoft: He left in 1998 to start, which went public a year later. He has since served on presidential commissions on health care. But he wanted to do more than just analyze the problems, and convinced Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer two years ago take him back. "I told him I had this passion and wanted to go back to work. I finally persuaded him it was a good idea."

Neupert figured health care could only be solved by a brand big enough to be recognized around the world. Given the complexity and scale of the health care problems, "even to move the needle takes something like a Microsoft, a company with patience, with an ability to get partners, build infrastructure and, quite frankly, financial strength," Neupert says. "Who are mom and dad going to feel comfortable sharing private data with? The government? No. The insurance industry? Statistics say 87% of consumers don't trust their health plan. Some under-funded no-name organization?" Worldwide, Microsoft is one of the best-known brands, he notes. "I think we have a pretty good shot."

He has lots of competition. In particular, Google (nasdaq: GOOG - news - people ) has been exploring a health care initiative. That program slowed recently when the executive leading the program left Google. Insurance companies, including Aetna (nyse: AET - news - people ), UnitedHealth Group (nyse: UNH - news - people ) and WellPoint (nyse: WLP - news - people ), also have medical recordkeeping systems under way.

There is no shortage of skeptics for a dozen reasons. "The concept behind it is dead on track, but it won't work very well" without a better way to integrate data from local doctors, predicts medical data guru Brent James, vice president for research at Utah's Intermountain Healthcare. The bottleneck, he says, is that there is no universal way to get blood test results, imaging scans and other basic data from thousands of local doctors and labs onto the Web.

"The intercommunications don't exist to get the data from where they now live into this central format and back out again to the physicians and nurses who would use them," James says.

Neupert agrees. "Hospitals, data devices, pharmacies, labs--we need to connect them all because the current situation is just too fragmented and siloed." As a starting point for pulling together data, Microsoft says it is working with 40 partners, including the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the Mayo Clinic, Johnson & Johnson and the American Heart Association, to provide content and applications for the sites. It also is working with device companies on applications that will allow readings to move directly from a range of diagnostic instruments--such as blood pressure cuffs and diabetic glucose monitors--to HealthVault.

Microsoft argues that HealthVault can avoid the countless security problems that have afflicted its operating systems. "It's an apples and oranges comparison," he asserts. "It's a lot easier for us to manage a service for reliability, security and privacy than it is to manage hundreds of millions of distributed personal computers." Microsoft is working with two hacker organizations to test the security of its system.

Although HealthVault will be free for consumers, this is no philanthropic effort. Microsoft hopes HealthVault will translate into more search revenues through targeted health-related ads. The site includes an improved online search that uses a machine-learning algorithm to help consumers search through articles on health issues by breaking broad topics into concrete subcategories.

"By providing a great health search experience, we will actually improve the search loyalty of Microsoft overall," says Sean Nolan, the Microsoft programmer who designed the site. He admits though that moving into the medical record arena "is a huge crazy challenge." Among other issues, Microsoft will have to tiptoe the line between assuring people their information is private--and serving up advertisements relevant to the health problems they have.

James says Microsoft's move into health care is reminiscent of dot-com companies who tried to develop medical records in the 1990s and stalled because they didn't control the data. "It is the same old great idea but the devil is in the details," he says. At least Microsoft has lots of money and technical expertise, he says.

Neupert says the potential "life-saving benefits" of a good electronic records system are worth the business risks. He ticks off what Microsoft needs to make the system real: Sign up medical partners who can start providing patient data, put privacy principles in place, work with hackers to test the system and so on. It's a long list.

The one virtue that even its critics concede to Microsoft is patience. It will need it.

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