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 Microsoft entry comes at a time when people are increasingly using online tools, especially Internet search, 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.
The personal information, Microsoft promised, 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, chair 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," said Dr. Peel.
Peter Neupert, the vice president in charge of Microsoft's health group, said the key to allaying privacy worries would be a track record of trust and showing consumers the value and convenience of personal health records. Consumers, he noted, initially were reluctant to try online banking because of privacy worries. But today, online banking is mainstream.
Anyway Microsoft does not expect most individuals to type in a lot 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 like medicines prescribed or, say, test results showing blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Such data transfers, Mr. Neupert said, would then be automatic, over the Internet. In such a context partnerships become important.
And quite a few organizations have already been roped in for the purpose. TheAmerican Heart Association, Johnson&Johnson, LifeScan, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and theMayo Clinic are among those to collaborate.
The partner strategy is a page from Microsoft's old playbook. Convincing other companies to build upon its technology, and then helping them do it, was a major reason Windows became the dominant personal computer operating system.
At NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in New York, Aurelia Boyer, the chief information officer, explained that the hospital was committed doing whatever it can to help patients manage their own health care. After an initial discussion with Microsoft, the hospital has pledged to start a pilot project to enable some kinds of patient data - like EKG's, perhaps — to be automatically sent to a person's HealthVault account.
(Electrocardiogram abbreviated as EKG or ECG, is a test that measures the electrical activity of the heartbeat.)
If a patient chooses to have a Microsoft personal health record, Ms. Boyer said, "We want to support them."
The Google too has been developing offerings broadly similar to Microsoft's — personal health records stored in Google data centers, and enhanced health search.
At the American Heart Association, Dr. Daniel Jones, the president, 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 online. Heart patients will be able to go to the association's Web site, open a HealthVault account and include their blood-pressure readings, weight and medications.
At first, Dr. Jones said, they would probably enter the data themselves, but later have it sent from a doctor's office or laboratory. Ideally, he said, the person would share the information with their doctor or nurse, who could call or send an e-mail message to warn of any disturbing changes. "The potential here is very great," Dr. Jones said. "And we all recognize the power of Microsoft to reach millions of households."
Microsoft also has signed up health care companies. 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 Microsoft HealthVault account. "We see this as a potentially powerful tool in helping patients manage their diabetes," said Tom West, president of Johnson & Johnson LifeScan.
"It's going to be a long journey," Neupert said. "To make a difference in health care, it is doing to take time and scale. And Microsoft has both."