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Google's Rx for Health Data

Its new site is a different approach to health-care data than Microsoft's HealthVault service. Cooperation may be key to the success of both

Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT) have unveiled what on the surface may look like competing efforts to improve how electronic health-care information is stored, shared, and disseminated. But the products would probably be more effective if they worked together.

On Feb. 28, Google debuted a long-anticipated health Web site at the Healthcare Information & Management Systems Society conference in Orlando. That came just three days after Microsoft announced the launch of a $3 million fund to fuel development of Web programs for its four-month-old HealthVault recordkeeping service (, 10/15/07).

Both are designed to help keep better track of patients' medical data. As any patient who has switched doctors or visited a specialist knows, health records are frequently stored in paper files that are neither easy to read nor transfer from one physician to the next. "Your doctor gives you paper," says Grad Conn, senior director of HealthVault product strategy. "There need to be applications out there so that consumers can access and use that information."

Google Health Undergoing Tests

But beyond sharing a larger purpose, the efforts by Google and Microsoft are different—and possibly complementary. "Many onlookers assume that Google and Microsoft will compete to offer systems to manage personal health records," says Andrew Rocklin, a principal at Diamond Management & Technology Consultants. "But they are tackling the challenge in such different ways" that they might fit together well, he says.

Google Health, now in trials with health-care partners such as the Cleveland Clinic (, 2/21/08) and scheduled to be made available to users later this year, is an online tool that consumers can use to store personal medical records, as well as search for doctors and health information. "We are trying to make user data accessible and portable," Marissa Mayer, Google's vice-president of search product and user experience, says in an interview.

Microsoft's service, on the other hand, is more a platform for helping health-care providers and other professionals move information online in the first place. A care provider could use HealthVault, for example, to build a program that takes data from a blood pressure monitor and share it electronically with physicians. The system could also help users send that information to online databases such as Google's site. "HealthVault is not designed to be a place where you store all your health information," Conn says. "It is a platform and it is going to be successful if and only if lots of applications are built on top of it."

Trying to Succeed Where Others Haven't

Neither Microsoft nor Google has ruled out the possibility of collaboration. Mayer says Google will "partner and interoperate" with other systems that store digital records. And Microsoft says it would be willing to interoperate with Google and others. "We are starting at a point where there is almost no connectivity," says Sean Nolan, HealthVault's chief architect. "Our perspective is we would love to have these folks be successful and to interoperate with HealthVault."

Indeed, cooperation may help Google and Microsoft succeed where others have failed. Despite efforts by companies and government officials to encourage digitizing health information, just 20% of physicians use electronic health records in their practices. And much of that is stored in systems that can't easily be retrieved from outside.

Still, patients and providers are warming to electronic health records. Users are more comfortable with keeping online records and health-care organizations themselves are more motivated to keep information digitally, thanks to government incentives and a desire to please Web-savvy patients. Microsoft's HealthVault has more than 100 partners. Google's test initiative has nearly 30 and is quickly adding more.

A partnership between Microsoft and Google—or at least an ability to share data between the two systems—may hold the most promise for patients.

Holahan is a writer for in New York .

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