Online Health Info System Is Unveiled by Microsoft

Published June 1, 2008

Microsoft Corporation has released a new software product and free Web-based platform that allows individuals to collect, store, and share their electronic medical records. HealthVault is intended to allow people to access their medical records through any device, regardless of the health care provider or insurer.

Microsoft has also developed HealthVault Search, a new Internet search engine that helps people find answers to health questions, learn more about topics important to them, confidentially store information they discover, and act on that knowledge to improve their health and wellness.

HealthVault Search also intuitively organizes relevant online health content, allowing people to refine Internet searches to more efficiently find information.

Empowers Consumers

Experts say technology can play a key role in helping solve the problem of “health care fragmentation,” the dividing up of a single patient’s providers and records between several organizations and locations, and can empower consumers by giving them more control over, and information about, their health care.

“A system like HealthVault can help put patients in control of their own health care by putting information and access directly in their hands, instead of forcing them to go through various intermediaries,” said Jeff Emanuel, research fellow for health care policy at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Health Care News.

“A functional market must be based on empowerment of the consumer, and the health care market is no different,” Emanuel said. “Telemedicine and health care technology allow consumers to control their own treatment and records, thereby giving them a stronger hand in their care.”

Security Measures

While developing HealthVault, Microsoft consulted privacy advocates, such as the Coalition for Patient Privacy, along with online security experts. HealthVault keeps a log of each time a record is written, changed, or read, which means users can view an audit trail in their personal HealthVault account at any time.

Microsoft’s HealthVault systems and databases are safeguarded with extra precautions, such as isolating data center traffic on a virtually separate network, and keeping servers in physically separate, locked cabinets.

All data traffic to and from HealthVault and its solution providers is encrypted. The system’s backup data are also encrypted, and its transportation is logged every time a record is accessed, uploaded, or downloaded.

Privacy Concerns

Not everybody feels confident about Microsoft’s ability–or intent–to protect patient privacy. Some analysts point to the system’s privacy policy as a sign it is still vulnerable to the targeted disclosure of private information. The policy says, in part:

“Microsoft may access and/or disclose your personal information if we believe such action is necessary to: (a) comply with the law or legal process served on Microsoft; (b) protect and defend the rights or property of Microsoft (including the enforcement of our agreements); or (c) act in urgent circumstances to protect the personal safety and welfare of users of Microsoft services or members of the public” (emphasis added).

“Privacy concerns are consistently shown to be one of the public’s biggest worries as health care moves toward a digital future,” said Emanuel. “Microsoft’s reservation of the right to disclose personal medical information if company officers see such a disclosure as being in the company’s best interest is worrisome.

“Security of information should be a primary focus in technological endeavors such as these,” Emanuel continued. “Despite the best of intentions, lapses in security can occur, and information can be inadvertently released. Purposely disclosing personal health information is far worse than that.

“Regardless of the reasons for disclosure, the results of such a violation of privacy can be devastating,” Emanuel said.

Microsoft launched the beta version of HealthVault in October 2007. The site was officially launched this February, and in April it was opened up for wider use.

Rina Shah ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.