Microsoft HealthVault's Survival Uncertain With Advent of GE Joint Venture

By Brian T. Horowitz  |  Posted 2012-01-18

Microsoft HealthVault's Survival Uncertain With Advent of GE Joint Venture

As Microsoft prepares to move its Amalga health intelligence software into a joint venture with GE, analysts see an uncertain future for the HealthVault personal health record (PHR) platform, which remains with Microsoft.

With Google announcing in June 2011 that it would close down its Google Health portal, a key bellwether for PHRs disappeared from the market.

"The outlook for the Microsoft HealthVault product in its present form is not bright," Joseph Walent, an analyst at Technology Business Research, told eWEEK. "If Google could not find a way to make it work, it must be a steep climb indeed to convince customers to consolidate their data on a third-party server."

On July 18, HealthVault began accepting data from the Google Health portal.

Still, HealthVault could survive when formats for electronic health records (EHRs) become more standardized, said Walent.

"Having something that works like a Mint or Carfax and pull information and have it in a standardized format would be a pretty robust tool that people would like to have," he said.

The Mint financial tool allows consumers to pull financial information from various accounts, Walent noted. A similar tool in HealthVault could work, he suggested.

"If this information can be procured by this service, rather than you're just booking and storing it there, people would be more inclined to use it," Walent said.

John Moore, an analyst at Chilmark Research, sees a decrease in resources for HealthVault that could put HealthVault into "stasis" until the market embraces the PHR model, he told eWEEK.

"I see a decrease in the amount of investment of development resources for HealthVault going forward until the market really jumps and wants something like that," Moore said. "The market's still a little premature in terms of the consumer demand for something like HealthVault."

Despite a possible decrease in investment, HealthVault is set as far as a comprehensive platform and may not require significant investment, Moore suggested.

"A lot of the hard work with HealthVault has been done," Moore explained. "It's not like they need to invest heavily in it anyway. There's a lot you can do with it today."

Despite doubts from analysts, Microsoft remains committed to the platform.

Sean Nolan, distinguished engineer and chief architect in Microsoft's health solutions group, is running the HealthVault business. Although Nolan acknowledged that HealthVault has not grown as fast as he would like, the company remains committed to the platform.

"We feel really good about where we are and have every plan to continue the investment and pushing it as hard as we can," Nolan told eWEEK. Nolan added that Microsoft would continue to form partnerships like those with companies such as iTriage and Ford to allow more people to access the platform.


Microsoft HealthVault's Survival Uncertain With Advent of GE Joint Venture

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"We believe HealthVault has been very successful for us in terms of creating deep relationships with users and in terms of becoming that sort of platform of interoperability for the industry that we want it to be," said Nolan.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer could have shut down HealthVault when the joint venture with GE was announced if that was the company's intention, Nolan suggested.

"If Steve [Ballmer] wanted to shut down HealthVault, he had some great opportunity to do it in the noise of this joint venture, and he chose not to very explicitly."

In choosing to keep HealthVault out of the joint venture, Microsoft wanted patients to be able to connect with HealthVault in a more "loosely coupled way" than enterprise products such as Amalga, said Nolan.

Despite Amalga going into the joint venture, HealthVault remains integrated with the enterprise platform. "HealthVault will continue to be the primary means by which our Amalga customers interact with patients or with constituents outside the walls of the hospital," said Nolan. "We don't foresee any real change."

Microsoft continues to build new partnerships to HealthVault and add access for consumers on the go.

At the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Microsoft, Ford Motor Co., health engagement company Healthrageous and architecture firm BlueMetal Architects announced a "doctor in your car" prototype system that would allow drivers to upload vital health data to the HealthVault cloud, then transfer the data to the Windows Azure cloud platform. Drivers would later retrieve graphical reports of their data when they leave the vehicle.

Microsoft also recently announced a version of HealthVault for the Windows Phone 7 platform. In addition, on Dec. 27, health site iTriage announced that it would integrate HealthVault into its iPhone application. iTriage provides a way to search for health information such as symptoms, diseases and medications as well as view descriptions, images and videos on medical topics.

Nolan sees HealthVault as an "ecosystem" that provides the "glue" for patients to access their health information in multiple ways, whether it's on the PC or on mobile devices. Nolan also sees HealthVault's open interface as a way to provide value for the platform.

"Even the folks that have been skeptical of us in the past tend to sort of look and see those pockets of success and that maybe there's something there," said Nolan.

Although analysts see HealthVault lasting through 2012, the future is, of course, unclear after that.

"I don't foresee Microsoft shutting down HealthVault altogether-at least not in 2012," Moore told eWEEK. "I can't say anything about 2013. I think at least for the foreseeable future, Microsoft has stated that they're committed to keeping HealthVault, and we'll wait and see." 

Regulation, Data Standards Could Decide HealthVault's Future

Wes Rishel, an analyst with Gartner, suggested that Microsoft could hang on to HealthVault until government regulations on meaningful use mandating that physicians pass patient data from EHRs to PHRs are made clearer.

"That would put them in a holding mode for another year," Rishel told eWEEK in an email.

The provision on PHR data flowing from EHRs is expected to be published in April, Rishel noted. "Hospitals would have to comply in 2013 or 2014, depending on when they first entered the program," he said.

As far as successful PHRs, Moore noted the health record platform of health maintenance organization (HMO) Kaiser Permanente, called My Health Manager. The Kaiser service allows patients to view their medical history, email doctors and schedule appointments. The company has 40 percent of its members using My Health Manager, said Moore.

HealthVault could be a useful tool for consumers to store data from multiple doctors and for multiple conditions to more than one device, said Moore.

Regarding HealthVault, Moore said, "I do hope that they remain viable in the market because I believe the market needs something like that, something separate outside a given individual provider organization."

HealthVault works well as far as allowing patients to access lab results, Shahid Shah, CEO of IT consulting firm Netspective Communications and author of the Healthcare IT Guy blog, told eWEEK.

Still, HealthVault has room for improvement in providing two-way communication for patients and allowing for appointment scheduling, Shah noted.

Meanwhile, Qualcomm's 2net platform offers an alternative to the PHR model of HealthVault, Shah suggested. A wireless gateway, 2net allows patients to send medical data from monitoring devices to the cloud, and then to mobile applications.

The 2net platform allows mobile devices to pull data from Qualcomm's cloud while HealthVault pulls data from large health care enterprises. In addition, 2net offers a strong two-way communication feature, said Shah.

"Microsoft could offer something similar to 2net with pass-through capability," said Shah. "Allowing that connectivity between devices to the patients could change the way people build applications," he explained.

"Developers could use HealthVault as a pass-through, and patients would never know HealthVault was being used," Shah added.

The struggles of the PHR platform to take off won't mean the end of HealthVault, said Shah. "I don't think HealthVault could close down because there is some money they're making off of it, whereas Google wasn't making any money off of it at all," Shah said, noting that Google Health was more of a trial compared with HealthVault.



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