October 5, 2007
Microsoft Offers System to Track Health Records
By STEVE LOHR
Microsoft is starting its long-anticipated drive into the consumer health care market by offering free personal health records on the Web and pursuing a strategy that borrows from the company’s successful formula in personal computer software.
The venture by Microsoft, which is called HealthVault and was announced yesterday in Washington, comes after two years spent building a team, expertise and technology. In recent months, Microsoft managers have met with many potential partners, including hospitals, disease-prevention organizations and health care companies.
The organizations that have signed up for HealthVault projects with Microsoft include the American Heart Association, Johnson & Johnson LifeScan, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, the Mayo Clinic and MedStar Health, a network of seven hospitals in the Baltimore-Washington region. The partner strategy is a page from Microsoft’s old playbook. To make its operating system, Windows, the dominant platform for personal computers, Microsoft persuaded other companies to build on its technology, and it helped them do it.
“The value of what we’re doing will go up rapidly as we get more partners,” said Peter Neupert, the vice president in charge of Microsoft’s health group.
The consumer health offering includes a personal health record and Internet searches tailored for health queries, under the name Microsoft HealthVault (www.healthvault.com).
The personal information, Microsoft said, will be stored in a secure, encrypted database. Its privacy controls, the company said, are set entirely by the individual, including what information goes in and who gets to see it. HealthVault searches are conducted anonymously, Microsoft said, and will not be linked to any personal information in a HealthVault personal health record.
The company hopes that individuals will give doctors, clinics and hospitals permission to submit information like medicines prescribed and data on blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Mr. Neupert said such data transfers would then be automatic, over the Internet, which is why the partnerships are so important.
At NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in New York, Aurelia G. Boyer, the chief information officer, explained that the hospital was committed to helping patients manage their own health care. After an initial discussion with Microsoft, the hospital has pledged to start a pilot project to enable some kinds of patient data — E.K.G.’s, perhaps — to be automatically sent to a person’s HealthVault account.
The Microsoft entry comes at a time when people are increasingly using online tools, especially searches, to find health information. Tighter curbs on medical spending and an aging population with more health concerns are expected to prompt consumers to take a larger role in managing their own care, including using online tools. But that trend has not gone very far yet.
Microsoft is also moving ahead at a time when other large technology companies have hit bumps in their health initiatives.
For example, the leader of Google’s health group, Adam Bosworth, left last month. The company has been developing offerings broadly similar to Microsoft’s, including personal health records stored in Google data centers and an enhanced search for health information.
The head of Cisco’s health care practice, Dr. Jeffrey Rideout, recently left to join a private equity firm, Ziegler HealthVest Management. And Dossia, a coalition led by Intel to provide employees at several large companies with personal health records, is going more slowly than planned.
But while some other technology companies are pulling back or slowing down in health, “Microsoft is stepping forward and finally declaring the hand it will play,” said Dr. David J. Brailer, who was the health information technology coordinator in the Bush administration. He now leads a firm that invests in medical ventures, Health Evolution Partners.
At the American Heart Association, Dr. Daniel Jones, the president, said working with Microsoft was a way to accelerate his group’s efforts to curb heart disease. Microsoft is collaborating with the association on an online tool for managing blood pressure. Heart patients will be able to go to the association’s Web site, open a HealthVault account and submit their blood-pressure readings, weight and medications.
At first, Dr. Jones said, consumers will probably enter the data themselves, but later they may have it sent from a doctor’s office or laboratory. Ideally, he said, patients would share the information with their doctor or nurse, who could call or send an e-mail message to warn of any disturbing changes. “The potential here is very great,” Dr. Jones said. “And we all recognize the power of Microsoft to reach millions of households.”
Microsoft has also signed up health care companies. Johnson & Johnson LifeScan, the nation’s largest producer of the glucose monitors used by many diabetes patients, plans to enable the monitors’ readouts to be uploaded to a Microsoft HealthVault account. “We see this as a potentially powerful tool in helping patients manage their diabetes,” said Tom West, president of Johnson & Johnson LifeScan.
Privacy is a serious consideration and one likely to slow the spread of personal health records. But Microsoft’s privacy principles have impressed Dr. Deborah Peel, chairwoman of the Patient Privacy Rights Foundation, a nonprofit group. In terms of patient control and openness to outside audits, “Microsoft is setting an industry standard for privacy,” Dr. Peel said.
Mr. Neupert of Microsoft said the key to building trust in the service would be a track record on privacy. Consumers, he noted, initially were reluctant to try online banking because of privacy worries. But today, online banking is mainstream.
“It’s going to be a long journey,” Mr. Neupert said. “To make a difference in health care, it is going to take time and scale. And Microsoft has both.”