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Online Consumer PHRs in MicrosoftLand and GoogleLand: Winning Hearts and Minds

By Clive Riddle

Quest Diagnostics Inc. and Health Grades Inc. announced this week that they will partner with Google to provide patients online access to their diagnostic laboratory records and rating information regarding hospitals and physicians. Google also provided further information this week on its Google Health PHR initiative.

There has been much attention given to Google's announcement last week regarding their PHR  pilot initiative with the Cleveland Clinic. Google Health is being designed to "assist providers to create a new kind of healthcare experience that puts patients in charge of their own health information." The Clevland Clinic pilot involves an invitation-only opportunity for a targeted patient group of between 1,500 and 10,000 that are among Cleveland Clinic's more than 100,000 patients currently using their PHR system called eCleveland Clinic MyChart. The pilot "will test secure exchange of patient medical record data such as prescriptions, conditions and allergies between their Cleveland Clinic PHR to a secure Google profile in a live clinical delivery setting. The ultimate goal of this patient-centered and controlled model is to give patients the ability to interact with multiple physicians, healthcare service providers and pharmacies. The pilot will eventually extend Cleveland Clinic’s online patient services to a broader audience while enabling the portability of patient data so patients can take their data with them wherever they go — even outside the Cleveland Clinic Health System."

The Associated Press reports that the profiles will be protected by the same password required to use other Google services such as email. The previously available beta Google Health login screen stated: "With Google Health, you can: * Build online health profiles that belong to you; * Download medical records from doctors and pharmacies; * Get personalized health guidance and relevant news; * Find qualified doctors and connect to time-saving services; * Share selected information with family or caregivers"

Meanwhile, what' s going on with Microsoft's HealthVault initiative? Sean Nolan, the Chief Architect for HealthVault, opened a blog on that topic last month: . He uses an interesting term: "we spend a bunch of time thinking about how to increase what we call "data liquidity" (a term only an engineer could love) -- how do we create pipes that let people easily and securely move data back and forth between their Vault and primary care doctors, specialists, hospitals, pharmacies, and so on, all under their consent and control." Sean states that "Microsoft will make the complete HealthVault XML interface protocol specification public. With this information, developers will be able to reimplement the HealthVault service and run their own versions of the system." Microsoft also just received publicity for its announcement to fund $3 million to outside parties to research and develop online tools to improve health. There has also been considerable discussion, in the wake of these announcements, regarding privacy concerns as consumer use these tools.

Microsoft, received less publicity, but may be making more of an impact, for its just announced accelerated push towards interoperability with its HealthVault PHR platform. Further down the page in Microsoft’s just issued press release, they stated that “the company will release HealthVault XML interfaces under the Microsoft Open Specification Promise (OSP). The OSP is a simple and clear way to help developers and solution providers working with commercial or open source software to implement specifications through a simplified method of sharing of technical assets, while also recognizing the legitimacy of intellectual property. Further reinforcing the company’s commitment to open interoperability, Microsoft is hosting a HealthVault community open source project — an implementation of the HealthVault API wrapper for the Java development environment — on Microsoft CodePlex, Microsoft’s open source project hosting Web site. This will be the first of many projects designed to make it easier for developers and solution providers to use the language and framework of their choice to deliver HealthVault-compatible applications.” What does all that technical jargon mean? That Microsoft has shifted, at least somewhat, from its historic total proprietary system stance, to a more open system that encourages interoperability. This should bode well for HealthVault, and PHRs in general.

Of course that PHR stakes are most definitely limited to Google and Microsoft. Steve Case's Revolution Health Group, Aetna, WellPoint and almost 200 other vendors are involved in this space. But, the Microsoft, Google's and other large vendor announcements have been greeted by privacy concerns in some corners. Gannett cites "Greg Sterling, an analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence in San Francisco, calls Google's initiative a 'good idea.' But, he adds, 'The problem and the challenge arise in the context of consumer privacy and data security.' " Also this week, the World Privacy Forum issued a report "Personal Health Records: Why Many PHRs Threaten Privacy". The report concludes that a number of PHR vendors, are not truly "covered by HIPAA", but rather tout that they are "compliant with HIPAA", which the report notes, could be subject to change. The report notes concerns that PHRs not covered by HIPAA include: Health records could lose their privileged status; records could more easily subpoenaed by a third party; and Information in some cases may be sold, rented, or otherwise shared.

What may be more significant in the long run, is the ultimate interoperability of these initiatives. If we want to simplify health care, technology must be a partner. But technology can become an obstacle if it consists of endless disparate tools and proprietary systems that can’t relate with other. Unfortunately, the latest survey and report on this topic indicates we're no where near close where we need to be. The California Health Care Foundation (CHCF) recently released three reports on Health Information Technology (HIT) adoption, regarding: HIT adoption and use in California; national HIT perspectives; and open source systems. Detailed information and downloads are available at

Jonah Frohlich, CHCF senior program officer, tells us "HIT can play a significant role in preventing medical errors, giving patients the appropriate level of care, and making health care more efficient. HIT is not a cure-all for what ails our health care system, but where it is used, it has helped support better care." CHCF points out that California has the highest rate in the nation for MD use of electronic health records (EHRs): 37% compared to 28% nationally. Still, that means the leading state, the home of Silicon Valley, barely has one in three doctors properly wired. According to their study, 'The State of Health Information Technology in California', "the larger the medical practice, the more likely it uses EHRs. Some 79% of Kaiser Permanente physicians reported using EHRs, followed by 57% of patients in large practices of ten or more physicians. But EHR usage dropped considerably among small/medium practices (25%) and solo practitioners (13%)."

In another CHCF report, 'Gauging the Progress of the National Health Information Technology Initiative: Perspectives from the Field' author Bruce Merlin Fried states "despite President Bush's 2004 plan to ensure that most Americans have interoperable electronic health records by 2014, the vast majority of practicing physicians, those who practice alone or in small groups, are no closer to using HIT now than they were three years ago."

Blogger Dana Blankenhorn gets it right in the ZDNet Healthcare blog: “In the context of the medical market, however, Microsoft’s process seems more reasonable. This is less about gaining the trust of consumers than it is about winning over doctors, hospitals, and payment processors.” In other words, this is about winning the hearts and minds of doctors, hospitals and payment processors, which requires interoperability.

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