Google and Microsoft plan health information ventures

Google and Microsoft plan health information ventures

Steve Lohr

Published: August 13, 2007

A doctor using a laptop to view his patient’s records. (Pailin Wedel/The News & Observer, via The Associated Press) 

NEW YORK: By combining better Internet search
tools, the vast resources of the Web and online personal health
records, the two leading candidates for Internet supremacy, Google and
Microsoft, are betting that they can enable people to make smarter
choices about their health habits and medical care.

"What’s behind this is the mass consumerization of health
information," said Dr. David Brailer, the former health information
technology coordinator in the Bush administration, who now leads a firm
that invests in health ventures.

 

 

 

 

It is far too soon to know whether either Google or Microsoft will
make real headway. Health care, experts note, is a field where policy,
regulation and entrenched interests tend to slow the pace of change,
and technology companies have a history of losing patience. And for
most people, health care is a private matter.

Google and Microsoft recognize the obstacles, and they concede that
changing health care will take time. But the companies see the
potential in attracting a large audience for health-related advertising
and services.

Neither Microsoft nor Google will discuss their plans in detail. But
Microsoft’s consumer-oriented effort is scheduled to be announced this
fall, while Google’s has been delayed and probably will not be
introduced until next year, according to people who have been briefed
on the companies’ plans.

A prototype of Google Health, which the company has shown to health
professionals and advisers, embodies the consumer-centered philosophy.
The welcome page reads, "At Google, we feel patients should be in
charge of their health information, and they should be able to grant
their healthcare providers, family members, or whomever they choose,
access to this information. Google Health was developed to meet this
need."

A presentation of screen images from the prototype – which two
people who received it showed to a reporter – then has 17 other Web
pages including a "health profile" for medications, conditions and
allergies; a personalized "health guide" for suggested treatments, drug
interactions and diet and exercise regimens; pages for sharing
information, receiving reminder messages to get prescription refills or
visit a doctor, and pages to access directories for nearby physicians
and specialists.

Google executives would not comment on the prototype, other than to
say the company plans to introduce health products via the Web,
experiment and see what people want and find useful. "We’ll make
mistakes and it will be a long-range march," said Adam Bosworth, a vice
president of engineering and leader of the health team. "But it’s also
true that some of what we’re doing is expensive, and for Google it’s
not."

At Microsoft, the long-term goal is similarly ambitious. "It will
take grand scale to solve these problems like the data storage,
software and networking needed to handle vast amounts of personal
health and medical information," said Steve Shihadeh, general manager
of Microsoft’s health solutions group. "So there are not many companies
that can do this."

Earlier this year, Microsoft bought a start-up company, Medstory,
whose search software was tailored for health information and last year
purchased a company that made software for retrieving and displaying
patient information in hospitals.

Microsoft will not disclose its product plans, but according to
people working with the company, the consumer effort will include
online offerings as well as software features to find, retrieve and
store personal health information on personal computers, cellphones and
other kinds of digital devices.

Shihadeh declined to discuss specifics, but said, "We’re building a
broad consumer health platform, and we view this challenge as far
bigger than a personal health record, which is just scratching the
surface."

Yet personal health records promise to be a thorny challenge for
practical and privacy reasons. To be most useful, a consumer-controlled
record would include medical and treatment records from doctors,
hospitals, insurers and laboratories. Under U.S. law, people can
request and receive their personal health data within 90 days. But the
process is complicated and time-consuming, and the replies typically
come on paper, as photocopies or faxes.

A more efficient way would be for that data to be sent via the
Internet into a person’s digital health record. But that would require
partnerships and trust between health care providers and insurers and
the digital record keepers.

Privacy concerns are another big obstacle – and both companies
acknowledge this. Mostly likely, they say, trust will build slowly, and
the online records will include as much or as little personal
information as users are comfortable divulging.

There are plenty of competitors these days in online consumer health
information, search and personal health records from startups like
Revolution Health, headed by the AOL founder Steve Case, to thriving
profit-makers led by WebMD Health. These businesses are attracted by
the shift in health care and pharmaceutical advertising online, as are
Google and Microsoft.

Google and Microsoft are great companies, said Wayne Gattinella,
WebMD’s chief executive, but "that doesn’t mean they will be expert in
a specific area like health."

In the past year, Google has improved its health search by allowing
experts at Mayo Clinic, the National Library of Medicine and elsewhere
to vet Web pages with trusted medical information. But specialized
health search engines – notably Healthline – are gaining ground and
adding partners.

Still, 58 percent of people seeking health information online begin
with a general search engine, according to a report last month by
Jupiter Research, and Google is the dominant search engine.

Dr. Roni Zeiger, a graduate of Stanford Medical School, a medical
informatics researcher and a former primary care doctor, joined Google
last year. The 36-year-old physician, who still sees patients some
evenings and weekends each month at a nearby clinic, explained, "At
Google, I can use my expertise and knowledge to potentially help
millions of people each day."

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