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Digging Into Microsoft’s HealthVault: Part Two (b) – The Experience

by John Moore | October 15, 2007

Have you ever come home from a strenuous work-out famished and can find nothing in the cupboards or the refrigerator to satisfy your cravings? If so, then you have some idea of what I experienced on HealthVault.

Getting into HealthVault was a work-out. It all began with the need to establish a Microsoft Windows Live ID account, which is really just a re-branding of the universally disliked Microsoft Passport. Why Microsoft, do you feel you compelled to continually entrap us with such things as this? Claims of added security are unconvincing as I certainly do not have to go through such a process as this for my on-line bank accounts or Fidelity account, both of which are VERY secure.

Once I got into HealthVault, low and behold the cupboards were bare.

Upon entering, one finds a fairly clear, crisp and consistent layout with tabs across the top to get one started. First, you are prompted with a simple process to establish your account by creating a record. Records for loved ones can also be created at this time or later. Each record has a simple file structure that includes: Health Info, Document Library, Sharing, Programs, History and Profile.

The HealthVault experience begins with one creating a profile for a given record. The profile asks for very basic contact information, nothing more. It does not ask for one iota of health-specific information and therein lies one of the most fundamental problems with HealthVault today.

As a platform, it is but a repository of data. HealthVault relies on your documents that you might upload to your HealthVault account and its partner network to provide all health-specific data through connections to their applications and Web services, which HealthVault refers to as “Programs.” Thus, it is incumbent upon the consumer to create a health-centric ecosystem, including selecting HealthVault partners that are pertinent to their needs. This is a very arduous process and not recommended for the feint-of-heart.

Why so arduous?

First, it is not easy to determine which Programs one may want to add. Secondly, wouldn’t it be nice to know which Programs are actually worth subscribing to? Hey Microsoft, how about a user’s ranking system for these partners with comments ala Cnet? Third, you do not stay in the HealthVault environment when you pick a partner, instead, you hop out of HealthVault to a partner’s website. Once there, it is not at all consistent across the various partners as to how to connect the Program to HealthVault. For some, like the American Health Association’s blood pressure monitoring it was pretty straight-forward. For others, such as Healthy Circles, Peaksware or US Wellness it is a completely different story. When you arrive on their site, there is nothing that points you in the direction of how to incorporate their Program into HealthVault. With the majority of these sites, about the only thing I could easily find was their press release referencing their partnership with HealthVault. Not much help there!

Why Microsoft did not demand that partners create a separate landing page for anyone coming from HealthVault to a partner’s site to insure consistency and quality of the experience is a mystery to me. This is a monumental shortfall of HealthVault today and I cannot imagine any consumer having the patience I did in trying to navigate through this morass.

Another significant shortfall is that there are only 7 partners providing Programs for HealthVault and the majority are very small, niche players who are riding Microsoft’s marketing coattails. Sure, some of them may make it, but as a consumer, I’d be very cautious enlisting most of them until they get some traction in the market. Where are the bigger players Microsoft?

Not is all lost and there are indeed some redeeming features of HealthVault including the Sharing and History features as well as their privacy policies.

The Sharing feature of HealthVault allows one to establish specific guidelines on what health information in their record they are willing to share with outside parties such as another family member, their physician, a fitness coach, etc. Today, sharing is pretty basic and is tiered into three levels of access: View, View & Modify and Custodian. Custodian is very similar to administrator privileges on one’s computer. Within the next few weeks, Microsoft states that they will be updating Sharing capabilities to allow for sharing of data within user defined time-ranges, e.g., you may want to provide access for only 15 days to insure privacy. Microsoft also will be adding a “tagging” feature allowing one to tag very specific data and information for sharing (or keeping private), rather than granting full access to all information in one’s health record.

The History feature will also be useful as it tracks the complete history of not only their interaction with HealthVault, including uploads of data from health monitoring devices or an update of the record from their physician, but also all others who may have access to their HealthVault record. Therefore, one can quickly see whether or not their physician has visited their HealthVault record and even if they made any changes to the record. This is much simpler than trying to dig through one’s record to see what is new. Important to note that only the Custodian of the record has access to History, which is to insure privacy.

Microsoft has also taken great pains to insure the privacy and security of HealthVault and all who use it. Adopting the policies first put forth by the early pioneers at Children’s Hospital of Boston and MIT, the developers of one of the first Web-based personal health platforms (now called IndivoHealth), Microsoft is putting the consumer in control of their health records. Microsoft’s privacy policy clearly states that they will not, for any reason (unless legally-bound), share your information for any purposes. All data that is exchanged between a consumer and HealthVault is encrypted via https. Data is stored in encrypted format in servers that are logically and physically separate from other Microsoft Web service offerings (e.g., Hotmail). At anytime, a consumer can ask to have their HealthVault account, or a given record deleted. Microsoft also claims that all partners will adopt similar privacy policies. Congratulations Microsoft on promoting a privacy policy that puts the consumer firmly in control of their health information.

In conclusion, despite excellent privacy policies and some other nice features (Sharing and History), I find that HealthVault Beta is NOT consumer ready. It is incomplete on a number of levels, confusing at times and is not user friendly. As it is today, HealthVault Beta is best used to attract partners to enlist and not much else.

I am not entirely writing off HealthVault. On the contrary there is potential here but it is going to take time for that potential to develop. An important factor in HealthVault’s long-term success is contingent on the partners (both quality and quantity of partners) that Microsoft can enlist to build critical mass on the HealthVault site. Microsoft also must address the shortfalls I’ve pointed such as the user experience, which today is simply unacceptable.

Microsoft has taken a bold leap here with HealthVault, a leap that redefines the PHR market. But that bold leap also brings a lot of expectations and the Microsoft HealthVault team has quite a ways to go before they meet the expectations of this potential consumer.

7 responses to “Digging Into Microsoft’s HealthVault: Part Two (b) – The Experience”

  1. only1234 says:

    I am on posting to my blog at phrboom.com and ran across your posting.

    If you happen to know of individuals that are age 65 and older I am researching their use of personal health records with the hope that the information can be used to create technology that the elderly population will trust. If you know of anyone that could take the survey please send them to my site. The most recent post has a link to the survey.

  2. […] the less than stellar launch of Microsoft HealthVault, where you clicked on a partner link only to be sent into God knows where, […]

  3. […] Google Health) would be successful in attracting consumers. After a pretty poor, at least from the consumer’s perspective, launch of HealthVault last October, it was much to that team’s credit that they were able to […]

  4. Jeffrey Cui says:

    Hi John,
    Thank you for your blog, it helps me know more about HealthVault.
    Want to ask you this, if I build up my HealthVault application and want to upload data, is it possible for me to define my own data type?
    Thank you

  5. John Moore says:

    Jeffery,
    HealthVault defines their own data model and are supporting several standards. Over time, the HealthVault team continues to add data elements to HealthVault to address varying needs in the market.

    Now you can certainly build an app that may other data elements (types) but until HV actually builds that field into their data repository, there is nowhere for it to go, unless of course it is simply categorized as unstructured data, such as a health journal, advanced directives, etc.

    Hope that helps and Merry Christmas.

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  7. […] team really have made tremendous headway and advances to the platform since its inaugural (and painful) launch some 3.5 years ago. But they still have a ways to go to get to the point where it truly […]

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