Microsoft and Its Competitors Still In Search of Mainstream User Base for Personal Health Records
Microsoft hasn’t yet attracted the millions of patients it would like to its personal health data service, HealthVault, says Peter Neupert, corporate vice president of the company’s Health Solutions Group. Though HealthVault and other products like Google Health that enable patients to store their health information online are free and available to anyone with Internet access, there appear to be many hurdles to clear before the use of such products becomes mainstream.
Neupert, along with his counterparts from Google Health and WebMD, was in Boston last Thursday to discuss personal health data platforms at the annual Connected Health Symposium, which was hosted by Boston-based Partners HealthCare’s Center for Connected Health. Despite the slow adoption rates of personal electronic health records indicated by Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), the companies may find themselves on the right side of history if the masses decide to own and manage personal health data online. Indeed, there has been lots of talk in Washington, DC, and elsewhere about moving healthcare toward a more patient-focused model, and one of the likely requirements for doctors in the U.S. to qualify for nearly $20 billion in federal incentives for adopting electronic medical records systems is to give patients access to personal health information.
But there are some big barriers in the way of patients adopting personal health records such as HealthVault and Google Health. Phil Marshal, a vice president of WebMD (NASDAQ:WBMD), said that he and his competitors have to make patients trust the provider of the record service, communicate well to patients, and ensure that the person finds value in the service. “I don’t think we’re there yet,” he said. And he noted that WebMD has been in the personal health information business since 1999. (Personal health records, of course, are among many online health resources that WebMD provides.) Another hurdle is that a patient typically can’t easily connect her personal health record to the health data kept in her doctors’ office, in part because many of their doctors aren’t connected to health information networks that enable them to transfer information.
“The steps needed to get millions and millions of users [of personal health records] are first to get providers connected,” Neupert said.
The technology certainly exists to integrate personal health records with providers, pharmacies, health insurers, and other stakeholders in healthcare. Microsoft’s Amalga technology stack, for example, includes tools that enable hospitals and public health agencies to share health data over a network, and I’m told that at least one regional health information network that uses Amalga is considering a project to link its network to HealthVault. Also, Kaiser Permanente, the Oakland, CA-based managed care giant, has an online patient portal that enables its members to access their personal health information.
Exact numbers of HealthVault users are difficult to come by, because Microsoft doesn’t release such information. Neupert declined a request to be interviewed at last week’s meeting. HealthVault was launched in October 2007 with much fanfare. Microsoft’s model for the offering has been to provide a secured repository for patient data kept in HealthVault (as the name suggests) and to make its platform open for independent software outfits to develop applications to offer patients multiple options for managing their health online. There are more than 100 apps for HealthVault, and the platform connects with more than 50 types of devices, Neupert said.
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, for example, has a HealthVault app that allows patients to store their electronic records from the hospital in their own personal health record. (The same app from Beth Israel appears to be available for Google Health, and the app contributors to both platforms that I’ve talked to such as Myca Health and MedApps sounded equally agnostic about the two.) Also, the Center for Connected Health is developing an app for HealthVault that is intended to help diabetics track their blood sugar and share such information with their physicians. It may still take years for patients to easily access their lab results and other health data on the Web, but whether that number of years is two or 12 isn’t really clear.
“We’re not too close yet with a real value proposition of, ‘What do I do with this information now that I have it,’” said Roni Zeiger, product manager of Google Health. Many of the folks who have opened Google Health accounts, he said, tend to be anal-retentive types who like having all their health information neatly organized in one place “just in case.” But there was consensus among the Google, Microsoft, and WebMD representatives that the average person is going to need something more than a place to keep his records to motivate him to sign up for a personal health record account.
In fact, much is uncertain about the future of personal health records. Will Google and Microsoft’s platforms, both of which offer open standards for developers to build healthcare apps, emerge as the winners? Will WebMD, which does not allow an open format for app development, eventually find itself at a competitive disadvantage? Perhaps the right approach for success hasn’t yet arrived. Neupert noted that even though AOL was successful for a time, the media and services company eventually took a back seat to its Internet competitors with superior business models.
So we’ll have to wait and see how successfully Microsoft and its competitors navigate these early days in the online personal health data business.