Microsoft’s Vet of Online Banking, Travel Aims To Make You Switch to Digital Health Records

3/9/09Follow @xconomy

No way would American consumers ever switch to online banking. It’s too risky, people used to tell David Cerino in the 1990s. Travel? Same story. Consumers would never voluntarily put their credit card numbers into a website that could get hacked.

Turned out the switch to online banking and travel took less than four years, as benefits of convenience outweighed the risks. Cerino, the general manager for health care solutions at Microsoft, played a part in both of those conversions earlier in his career. Now he’s trying to do the same thing with medical records. Microsoft’s Web-based platform, called HealthVault, is 18 months old.

Health care, an industry that accounts for one-seventh of the U.S. economy, is a tough nut to crack. The many players—consumers, physicians, pharmacies, health insurers, labs, governments, employers—have conflicting agendas. But as President Obama has raised the profile of electronic health records as part of the stimulus program, Microsoft has high hopes that consumers, and the rest, will give this long-awaited idea a closer look.

How does it work? Microsoft introduced HealthVault in October 2007 as a “platform,” or operating system sort of like Windows, Cerino says. It stores health records in the company’s data centers, kept in an undisclosed location. It’s free of charge for consumers. Developers then write software applications so that a consumer’s devices—portable blood sugar monitors, home blood pressure monitors, or weight scales—can dump their digital readouts into HealthVault via the Internet. Fifty medical devices can load compatible data into HealthVault. Microsoft also has signed up more than 100 partners, including one of the nation’s largest pharmacies (CVS Caremark), one of the biggest private health insurers (Aetna), and a huge health care provider (Kaiser Permanente). (Google’s foray into health records, Google Health, uses files that aren’t compatible with Microsoft’s platform.)

Under the HealthVault model, the consumer is in control of keeping this data and shares it with the person of their choosing—a physician or pharmacist who can offer advice via e-mail, or spot a problem early and ask the patient to come in for a check-up, to keep things from spinning out of control before a regularly scheduled appointment, Cerino says.

The prize for Microsoft would be grabbing more precious attention from tens of millions of consumers, allowing the company to put targeted online ads in front of, say, diabetics who might want to upgrade to a new blood sugar monitor.

As with any big switch from the status quo, there are barriers to adoption, and this one is a biggie. The term “Vault” in the platform’s name ought to offer a clue. Microsoft has to assure consumers that if they put their private health information online, absolutely no one will see it without their permission.

“I was an early guy at Orbitz who helped build that engine. That was at the same time when everybody asked, ‘Can you really put your credit card number online?’” Cerino says. “The same questions arise, regardless of which industry. Health data actually is just one more level up. It makes you take a deep breath and say, ‘It really cannot be compromised.’”

But there are key differences that make the health industry’s digital switch more complicated than other industries, Cerino says. In banking and travel, consumers had a strong incentive—ability to do 24-hour banking, or get cheaper fares without relying on a travel agent. They were willing to take on some extra work to get those benefits, he says.

HealthVault is still trying to make its case to consumers that taking control of their medical data will help them stay healthy, Cerino says. It may also save consumers the time and hassle … Next Page »

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