Software giant Microsoft Corp. on Thursday joined an increasingly crowded field of health and technology companies offering consumers an electronic personal health record.
Like other Web-based personal health records, Microsoft’s HealthVault is free and will allow consumers to store medical information -- such as vaccination dates and X-rays -- and share what they wish with physicians and relatives of their choosing.
The big question now is whether the tech giant will have any more success at getting consumers to use electronic health records than big health plans have.
“We think they are very important -- perhaps the most important consumer health tool that’s been developed over the past decade,” said Archelle Georgiou, a physician and executive vice president of OptumHealth, a unit of UnitedHealth Group Inc., one of the nation’s largest health insurers.
UnitedHealth has made Web-based personal health records -- chock-full of information culled from medical claims -- available to 24 million enrollees since 2005.
But UnitedHealth, like other purveyors, hasn’t seen the kind of uptake it would like. Research shows that only about 7% of consumers are availing themselves of such healthcare management tools.
“You can have the greatest technology ever, and if doctors and patients are not using it, then we’re not going to be recognizing the value,” Georgiou said.
UnitedHealth recently rolled out a series of radio public service announcements to promote the use of Web-based personal health records, underscoring how vital the information could be in the event of a natural disaster or personal medical emergency.
Aware that privacy is the No. 1 concern for consumers, Microsoft took care to ensure that the information users put in HealthVault would remain under their exclusive control.
“It’s the patient’s data, and no one else can see it,” said Steve Shihadeh, general manager of Microsoft’s Health Solutions Group.
“We won’t ever sell or mine or use their data.”
The information will be stored in a secure, locked down area, separate from Microsoft’s other servers, he said.
Solo and small-practice physicians have been slow to convert their patient records to digital files largely because of the cost. But one large group that has -- HealthCare Partners Medical Group -- plans to make Web-based personal health records available to its 500,000 Southern California patients next year.
“We are very close,” spokeswoman Linda Carre said.
“We want functionality to help patients manage their care, chronic diseases and to make more informed decisions with their physicians and their families.”
Big health plans like UnitedHealth, which operates PacifiCare, and WellPoint Inc., which operates Blue Cross of California, have offered Web-based personal health records for a couple of years. They believe they have a leg up on vendors outside the healthcare industry because they preload each enrollee’s database with information derived from claims forms.
UnitedHealth also makes its personal health records platform available for free to the general public without preloaded data.
WellPoint’s My Health Record is available to nearly 35 million enrollees nationwide.
Some health plans allow physicians to add information to personal health records, and feature tools such as alerts to news about certain conditions and self-administered risk assessment tests.
UnitedHealth’s Georgiou said electronic personal health records allowed physicians to more efficiently and accurately diagnose and prescribe treatment for patients. Specialists, who often don’t have access to a patient’s primary paper record, can be hampered if they must rely on a patient’s often foggy memories of diagnoses, test results and medication use.
One limitation of personal health records maintained by health plans is that they can’t follow a consumer when he or she switches from one insurer to another. The industry recognizes the problem and is working on it, insiders say.
Microsoft also launched HealthVault Search, a medical search engine available free to all users, as well as a site where consumers could find and purchase products and services offered by partners, such as Polar Watch, which makes fitness and exercise accessories.