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 move by Microsoft Corp., which is called HealthVault, comes after two years spent building its team, expertise and technology. In recent months, Microsoft managers have met with many potential partners including hospitals, disease-prevention organizations and health care companies.
Among the organizations that have signed up for HealthVault projects with Microsoft is Columbia-based MedStar Health, whose seven-hospital network includes Union Memorial, Harbor, Franklin Square and Good Samaritan hospitals in Baltimore. Also on board are the American Heart Association, Johnson & Johnson's LifeScan Inc., the Mayo Clinic and New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
"The value of what we're doing will go up rapidly as we get more partners," said Peter Neupert, vice president in charge of Microsoft's health group.
The company's consumer health offering includes a personal health record, as well as Internet search 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. The HealthVault searches are conducted anonymously, Microsoft said, and will not be linked to any personal information in a HealthVault personal health record.
Privacy is a huge issue 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 agreeing to outside audits, "Microsoft is setting an industry standard for privacy," Peel said.
Microsoft does not expect most individuals to type much of their own health information into the Web-based record. Instead, the company hopes that individuals will give doctors, clinics and hospitals permission to directly send into their HealthVault record information such as medicines prescribed or, say, test results showing blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Such data transfers, Neupert said, would then be automatic, over the Internet, which is why the partnerships are so important.
"The issues are: Can we get the connections and demonstrate the value of this to people so they build up these records as they go along," he said.
The Microsoft entry comes at a time when people are increasingly using online tools, especially Internet searches, to find health information.
An aging population with more health concerns, as well as tighter curbs on medical spending, are expected to prompt consumers to take a larger role in managing their own care, using online tools that include personal health records. But that trend has not gone very far yet.
Dr. Daniel Jones, president of the American Heart Association, said that working with Microsoft was a way to accelerate his group's efforts to curb heart disease.
The company is collaborating with the heart association on an online blood pressure management tool. Heart patients would be able to go to the association's Web site, open a HealthVault account and include their blood-pressure readings, weight and medications.
Johnson & Johnson LifeScan, the nation's largest producer of glucose monitors for diabetes patients, plans to enable the monitors' readouts to be placed into a HealthVault account.
"We see this as a potentially powerful tool in helping patients manage their diabetes," said Tom West, president of LifeScan.