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Microsoft HealthVault Makes Pitch to Hospitals, Tries to Crack Tough Nut of Health-IT Adoption

Xconomy Seattle — 

One of the big questions surrounding the burgeoning field of healthcare IT is, who is going to push to adopt the technology—patients, doctors, or hospitals? After much thought, it seems Microsoft is banking on the latter.

The Redmond, WA, company (NASDAQ: MSFT) is announcing a new software system geared toward hospitals today at the 2010 Annual Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) Conference & Exhibition in Atlanta. The software, called HealthVault Community Connect, helps gather a patient’s electronic health information—typically stored in a hospital’s separate IT systems—and makes it available to both the patient and referring doctors. Some of these capabilities existed before, but this is the first time a unified system, based on Microsoft’s SharePoint platform for Web-based process management, will be licensed to hospitals.

The software will let patients do things like pre-register online for appointments (sort of like checking in for a flight) and get access to their test results, clinician notes, and medication lists. Doctors can track all the data through the hospital system and make sure the right people have the right charts available before the patient’s next visit. Microsoft says a prototype version was tested at New York Presbyterian Hospital, and the new product is being used by early adopters like Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital, based in Jacksonville, FL. It will be widely available in the third quarter of this year.

Microsoft HealthVault, which was released in October 2007, fits into a larger effort within the company’s 700-strong Health Solutions Group. HealthVault, as the name suggests, is meant to be a secure repository of medical records accessible by patients and their doctors. The program has about 150 partners so far, as is compatible with some 70 home healthcare devices. Other related Microsoft products include Amalga, which tries to get all 65 or so proprietary health IT systems in the average U.S. hospital to talk to each other, and Amalga Life Sciences, which seeks to help genomics researchers put their data in a form that will eventually be conducive to personalized medicine.

David Cerino, a general manager in Microsoft’s Health Solutions Group, calls the new HealthVault offering “first-of-its-kind software that can bridge the islands of care from hospitals to the home to the referring community, and engages patients and families in their healthcare.”

One major selling point to hospitals, he says, is that it will help them address the goals of “meaningful use,” the long-awaited standards, yet to be established by the U.S. government, for offering incentives to doctors and hospitals to make electronic health records available to patients. Despite the continuing uncertainty—the incentives might not be offered until this fall, or later—Microsoft has to move forward. “We know where we’ll fit,” Cerino says. “You’ve got to get proactive.”

Indeed, the new product says a lot about Microsoft’s broader health-IT strategy—and how it plans to reach consumers (patients) through their doctors. Cerino says the biggest challenge for HealthVault is “how we get consumers first of all to realize there’s an alternative way to do things.” He adds, “They do own this information, and they need to take charge of their health. They think their doctor owns the data. That keeps me awake at night.” Despite the obvious importance of health, he says, “we as consumers don’t have enough time” to manage our own health records. Cerino thinks that means technologists “haven’t made it easy enough.”

So how to make progress? “Consumers listen to their physicians,” Cerino says. As hospitals start to use Community Connect, physicians will say, ‘The relationship I’ll have with you is different.’” That means getting health information to patients faster using secure messaging, and having their records available wherever they go, he says.

Before joining Microsoft’s HealthVault effort, Cerino came from the worlds of online banking and travel. So I wondered if he thinks consumers will eventually adopt electronic health records as fast as they switched over in travel and banking. Maybe not, he says, but “we’re starting to climb that curve on growth. Everything seems to be moving in the same direction for the first time in a long while.”

And to that end, Cerino says, Microsoft is trying to understand how health IT will be adopted in a way that goes far beyond the typical thinking in the tech sector—for example, whether it’s a “consumer” or “enterprise” play. It’s both. Meanwhile, Microsoft is also trying to promote an open software platform that partners and outside developers can build on, so as to create another one of its vaunted software “ecosystems,” as already exists around its popular products like Windows, Office, SharePoint, and Exchange. “We’re really trying to surround it from all fronts,” he says.

Lastly, I asked Cerino what personally drove him to tackle the difficult health-IT sector. After all, maybe the field is just too fraught with conflicting agendas to take off anytime soon and become much of a business for Microsoft or its competitors. “I got two good hits,” he says, referring to banking and travel. “I’m going to go for a third in healthcare. It’s more complex , it’s harder, there are a lot of differing incentives. I wanted to take a harder swing.”

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