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Digging Into Microsoft’s HealthVault – Part One: Search

by John Moore | October 08, 2007

As I reported earlier, Microsoft has jumped into the consumer healthcare market with the October 4th launch of HealthVault (HV). Microsoft was kind enough to provide me with an in-depth briefing on what HV is and is not which I will combine with my own research to provide a review over the course of the next couple of posts, beginning with this one on HealthVault Search (HVS).

HVS is built upon the Medstory platform, which Microsoft acquired in late February 2007. This medical-specific search engine will provide the revenue, via search-related ads, to support the rest of the HV platform, which is offered free to consumers.

As discussed in my previous post, MedStory/HVS uses advanced algorithms that often rely on specific clinical terms to minimize Spam when doing a search. Medstory/HVS provides rapid search capabilities with results that are highly relevant and nicely ranked within specific broad categories.

Prior to acquisition, MedStory had a nice feature that presented bar graphs that ranked highly specific results within general categories, such as diagnosis, treatment, research, etc. The longer the bar, the greater the relevancy of information available for your specific search. Microsoft has done away with the bar graphs and instead moved to a graphical scheme of shading green boxes within the general categories to indicate relevancy/strength of a search result. This is an unfortunate dumbing down of the MedStory bar graph – it may be easier to view, but provides far less clarity and information. The general categories provided in most searches are: Personal Health, Conditions, Procedures, Drugs & Substances, Alternative Medicine and Nutrition. These categories are made quite visible being shown at the top of the search page and make it much easier for an individual to delve further into the topic they are researching. Final assessment: I’ll give this feature a 9 out of 10.

To the right of these categories is a feature that allows you to archive your search result in your personal HealthVault data repository for future reference/retrieval in your “Scrapbook.” You need to establish a HV account to use this feature. But is storing a search in a scrapbook any easier than just retyping a word or phrase? I don’t think so. What would actually be better for a consumer (and me) is to be able to actually tag specific articles, reports, etc. that a search may turn up and put those in my scrapbook. Now that would be a time saver! As it is today, Scrapbook only gets a 5 out of 10.
Beneath the listed categories and scrapbook feature are three columns. Going left to right, the first provides general, high-level information on the search topic. The second, more general Web search results and the third, search-specific ads.

I like the first column as it provides a quick overview on the topic, typically from a reputable source such as the American Heart Association or the Mayo Clinic. Above the text itself are small graphic page icons that unfortunately do not tell you the source until you click on them. Wouldn’t it be nice if one could simply hover over one of these images like I can today with Firefox and using the SnapShot add-on, get a thumbnail of the source of this content? As it is structured today, these little graphical icons are little more than wasted space and either should be removed or significantly enhanced. Final assessment: Column One provides good value but could use some improvement. I give it an 8 out of 10.
The second column I found of only modest utility. This feature is similar in appearance to a Google search, i.e., provides ten hits per view, brief abstract on hit with link, etc. While it may be good for some to see the whole broad range of topics related to a given search, I would rely on the search results provided under specific categories at the top of the search page rather than what is shown here. Final assessment: Column Two is redundant and ultimately, a waste of valuable real estate. This one gets only a 3 out of 10.

Column Three, well that is a necessary evil. Nothing is for free, including HV with HV being supported by the advertisers on HVS. The market is comfortable with this provided Microsoft adequately shields the consumer, and their searches, from the advertisers. Microsoft has been VERY proactive on privacy and security as it pertains to HV, much more so than the vast majority of similar, consumer health-centric, software as a service (SaaS) providers on the Web today. The only problem with Microsoft, and it is a very real problem, is that they are such a large target that hackers love to hack. But I do not see this being a problem with HVS, it will be more of a concern with a consumer’s HV account, which I will cover in my next post. Column Three gets a 10 out of 10 – hey it is paying for all of this after all so don’t complain.

Tallying it all up, my final assessment for HVS is 7 out of 10. Not a great score, but for a Beta version, not bad either. There are definitely some nice features here and with some modest improvements, Microsoft could greatly improve the functionality and utility of HVS getting closer to the perfect 10 out of 10.

So Microsoft, when will HVS come out off Beta?

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