Tuesday, October 9, 2007

HealthVault: Holy Grail or Pandora's Box?

How many aspects of your life do you handle online? Do you buy books from Amazon? Do you bid or sell on eBay? Do you check your bank balance in a browser? How about your investments? Do you communicate by email more often than you write physical letters? Most modern Americans do at least one or two of these things on a regular basis. Now consider this, when was the last times you looked at your prescriptions, X-Rays, or health records online?

The advantages and cost savings of EMRs are consistently touted, both on this blog and in many other places. The recent unveiling of Microsoft's HealthVault makes it seem a viable EMR option is looming on the horizon. While at first glance this is a good thing there are many who seem uneasy about it. Robert Langreth, Senior Editor for Forbes, is one of them:

Microsoft, the company whose personal computer software is regularly attacked by hackers, the company reprimanded by governments for its aggressive monopolistic behavior?

While the aknowledged leader in the field of computing, Microsoft's history does lend itself to some unsease when considering privacy concerns (Win XP, Service Pack 2 anyone?). Langreth's interview with Peter Neupert, Microsoft VP in charge of development for their health group, is an interesting one as Langreth tries to counter that perception.

Microsoft argues that HealthVault can avoid the countless security problems that have afflicted its operating systems. "It's an apples and oranges comparison," he [Langreth] asserts. "It's a lot easier for us to manage a service for reliability, security and privacy than it is to manage hundreds of millions of distributed personal computers." Microsoft is working with two hacker organizations to test the security of its system.

Although HealthVault will be free for consumers, this is no philanthropic effort. Microsoft hopes HealthVault will translate into more search revenues through targeted health-related ads. The site includes an improved online search that uses a machine-learning algorithm to help consumers search through articles on health issues by breaking broad topics into concrete subcategories.

"By providing a great health search experience, we will actually improve the search loyalty of Microsoft overall," says Sean Nolan, the Microsoft programmer who designed the site. He admits though that moving into the medical record arena "is a huge crazy challenge." Among other issues, Microsoft will have to tiptoe the line between assuring people their information is private -- and serving up advertisements relevant to the health problems they have.

Walking that line might be easier than suspected. The success of numerous social networking sites, as well as online products such as the Google suite of applications show that while this is a concern it seems a rapidly diminishing one. People everywhere are getting used to seeing keyed text ads in the margins of their Gmail / Hotmail / Yahoo mail, getting reccommendations from eBay and Amazon when shopping, and generally having their data not only stored on the net but also implemented for promotional means.

Is this good? Is this bad? Will the public embrace or revile it? Only time will tell.

It is, after all, "a huge crazy challenge."

SOURCE: "Who Are You Going To Trust?" 10/08/07
Photo courtesy of: Library of Congress via pingnews.


  1. While the fear of a loss of privacy concerns many it is through knowing that we are not the only one who has ever experienced an illness or interpersonal situation that helps us find and trust the cure. Some people also love to talk about their illnesses so privacy may not be as big an issue as the targeted ads. Yet on the other hand we are giving our information to receive catalogues from our favourite stores and signing up for newsletters so perhaps in the vast world of choices being led to what we may want seems pretty common. I think some rating scheme of the ads just like we get rated by our education and companies get rated for their standards is needed with the advertisements. Challenges are everywhere we look. Knowing how to think is even more important in today's world than ever before.

  2. Dr. Belleghem, thank you for your perspective! I think you do raise some very good points about people loving to talk about their illnesses and the modern tendency to share personal info online for various purposes.

    My intent was to illustrate the perplexing trust issues being raised by this new EMR system, concerns that many people derive from Microsoft's negative publicity on privacy issue in the past.

    Your idea of a rating scheme is very interesting, and I will certainly be on the lookout for any news that points towards something like that developing.

    Thank you for reading!


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