Medical Records Anywhere, Anytime

After talking about it for six years, Microsoft is finally delivering on the promise of users' medical records "in the cloud."

Six years ago, Microsoft presented its vision of a world where everyone's medical records were instantly available online whenever and wherever they were needed -- with access to those records controlled by the end users, not healthcare providers or insurance companies.

Microsoft this week finally debuted a free online storage and retrieval service for consumers' medical and health records. Named Microsoft HealthVault, the new service is available now. Additionally, the company unveiled HealthVault Search, a health information search engine that is integrated with Live Search.

"People are concerned to find themselves at the center of the healthcare ecosystem today because they must navigate a complex web of disconnected interactions between providers, hospitals, insurance companies and even government agencies," Peter Neupert, corporate vice president of the Health Solutions Group at Microsoft, said in a statement.

Microsoft's original 2001 vision was part of a planned set of technologies codenamed Hailstorm. However, Hailstorm met with mediocre interest and ultimately was a no show on Microsoft's technological horizon. True to form, though, Microsoft let the idea rest but never really gave up on it.

Now it's back. The question is: will it catch on this time?

If the names of major healthcare organizations who are endorsing Microsoft's plans this time around are any measure, the idea may yet have legs. On that list, for instance, are the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association, and the American Lung Association.

Healthcare providers and medical device manufacturers are also well represented. More than 40 companies have signed up to provide applications and devices that support Microsoft's HealthVault platform. These include New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Physicians Wellness Network, HealthCentral Network, and Sound Health Solutions, as well as companies such as LifeScan, NexCura, NextGen Healthcare Information Systems, and Texas Instruments.

"HealthVault allows people to collect their health information from many sources, store it in one place, and share it with whomever they choose, designed to greatly reduce unnecessary confusion, paperwork and delays," a Microsoft statement said.

"Consumers can store and control an array of health information in their Microsoft HealthVault records, including prescription medication lists, health histories, hospital discharge summaries, lab results, fitness data and HealthVault Search results," states another Microsoft document.

The idea of all of users' data being stored "in the cloud" has been coming to the forefront lately as Microsoft has focused increasingly on its Live services offerings. For example, earlier this week, the company announced an upcoming service that will let Office users store and share documents via a secure workspace online.

Among the issues that have held up progress, especially on the medical records side of things, to date have been security and privacy.

Microsoft is well aware of those issues.

"All data that moves between our systems — even within our datacenter — is encrypted, as is all traffic between HealthVault, people who use HealthVault, and HealthVault partners," a Microsoft fact sheet states. Additionally, the fact sheet says, the servers that store the data are isolated on a separate network and the physical servers themselves are in "physically separate, locked cages."

While promising to protect users' privacy, Microsoft's plans do, however, include the ability to sell advertising that's directed toward them.

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