Thursday, October 11, 2007

Microsoft HealthVault: A Solution Seeking the Right Problem?

With much ballyhoo Microsoft unveiled its new HealthVault beta portal recently, a big push by the Microsoft to get a leg up on Google's position as a source for health information. The HealthVault portal itself could hardly be called a portal: it's a landing page that invites you to use a special version of Microsoft's Live Search, set up a portfolio of private health information that can be shared with trusted sources and a link to software that can enable one to download information from health monitoring devices into your HealthVault data. Once you've selected any of these options there's no navigating back to the main portal page. So what you get right now is more of a showcase for potential partners than an online presence that's going to attract an audience.

The Live Search tuned up for HealthVault has a number of useful features, many of which have been used for a long time already in Google's health-oriented searches and in Amazon's A9 search portal. The latter similarities are no coincidence, given Amazon's decision a while back to dump Google as a search partner in favor of Microsoft and the highlighting of Amazon's content in the HealthVault portal. Search results are pretty good in HealthVault, with some being downright rich in content and others being merely comparable to Google search results. Put in a broad terms such as "Autism" and HealthVault Live Search returns a column labeled "Articles" with Wikipedia content - kind of a - a column of Web search results and a column of sponsored content from Amazon with contextual ads beneath it. Atop this is a category-based navigation similar to Google's Co-Op feature.

Something a bit more off the beaten track like "pancreatic cancer ductal tumors"
ditches the Wikipedia articles and draws in more scholarly content in search results than one would find in Google, which tends to segregate scholarly resources off in its Google Scholar search. That may or may not be a good thing depending on who is using this feature, but if you're trying to dig deeper into a health issue you definitely have some contrasts between Google and Microsoft to consider. There are also some interesting differences when you try a term that may not be thought of immediately as a health resource, such as "cinnamon," which is now being used as a resource for blood sugar and cholesterol management. In Google there is no health-oriented Co-Op category information available for this search whereas HealthVault provides a very useful taxonomy. However, again HealthVault comes out a little heavy on the hardcore health information and a little light on more consumer-accessible informaiton.

If you see an article that interests you in search results you can bookmark it into your HealthVault secure account information via the "Add to Scrapbook" feature, but in doing so you'll have to pass through a login screen and some other screens that were just plain frightening - I had no idea what would happen if I said "yes" to the questions asked, but went along anyway - just to get a bookmark into my HealthVault account. I'll allow that this is a Beta product and that such oddities are likely to be worked out in time, but it's one of those typical instances of Microsoft features that sound great on paper and wind up never working the way that you hoped that they would.

The HealthVault Account feature allows a member to use their HealthVault information in association with a number of health screening services and online medical records services, presumably to make it easier for people to give you proper medical care and advice. This is obviously the big corporate hook for HealthVault, with doubtless the hope that major HealthCare providers would default to HealthVault as a common provider of this type of service and enable them in time to deliver streamlined services and benefits based on HealthVault as a common interface. That may very well be, but right out of the box don't expect too many consumers to be jumping head over heels for this service. The non-friendly home page for HealthVault says in essence to the consumer "Hi, we're Microsoft, give us all of your health history details and we'll make it easy for corporations to look at them." Thanks, but I think that we've been there already with Microsoft Wallet, an earlier stab by Microsoft to become the universal online payment service for ecommerce. You'd think that they'd learn from that experience that it helps to look at things from the consumer's perspective first.

One of the more promising features of the beta HealthVault is the HealthVault Connection Center, which highlights software that makes it easy for people using health monitoring equipment to collect data from these devices in HealthVault and to make it available to physicians who can scan that information as needed. This plays into Microsoft's strengths as a provider of gizmo interfaces and offers some potential long-term benefits for wellness monitoring services. But even here it's early days for the beta product: the HealthVault Connection Center at this point is just a set of links to Microsoft's device driver and software download pages on the main Microsoft Site. There's no integration to speak of.

Microsoft has carved out an ambitious vision for HealthVault, tying in personal, Web and device-driven content into a framework that may make it easier for health care professionals to provide services to patients and wellness enthusiasts. In the still-sketchy outlines of this product you can see how Microsoft sees a huge opportunity to become a master repository for health information that could make it a power player in the health care industry as a result. With the far more competitive and commoditized media marketplace looking less and less like a winner for Microsoft this leveraging of its strengths in both the consumer marketplace and the corporate marketplace may be a great way for Microsoft to firm up its established but threatened footholds in both markets.

But clearly this ambitious vision has a long way to go. The Live Seach results are very well designed and promising, but they are not so clearly superior to Google's existing health care offerings that it is likely to create an immediate stampede to Live's view of health information. The corporate feel of the site and the utter lack of deftness in making people feel that there's something in it for them to provide highly sensitive personal information puts a damper on the potentially strong value-add features that could be built off of it. The device integration is a nice concept, but there's a long way to go before we see dashboards built off of this information that will be useful to both consumers and health professionals. There was enough goodness in all of this to get at least one news cycle of positive spin, but there's a long road ahead to make this a viable hit for Microsoft.

Still, it's more than its major competitors have done lately to offer a vision of how personal, Web, scholarly and device-driven medical content can come together to improve health care for both consumers and professionals. Microsoft would claim that the've stolen the march from Google with this initiative, and from a vision standpoint they may have a reason to crow a bit. But from an execution standpoint it's a clumsy enough start with typical Microsoft over-hyping of fairly modest features and partner relationships that potential heavyweight content partners are not going to get bowled over immediately as they have been in days past. This may buy Google and others time to come up with their own approaches that may have a more consumer-friendly appeal that will be essential for the long-term success of any such initiative. In the meantime HealthVault's visionary offering gives both content producers and medical professionals a lot to think about in how they plan to make better use of the Web to improve their services to consumers.
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