Help! Is there a search engine in the house?

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In my mind, there is nothing more beautiful than seeing an offline opportunity solved by technology. My heart leapt the day when my dentist started taking digital x-rays and my doctor typed notes on a PC. So why did my heart stop when, earlier this month, Microsoft announced that it is beta testing Healthvault, an online medical information and record storage service? Just a week or so later, Google displayed its classic one-upsmanship by announcing that it too would launch a similar service, dubbed the Google Health Initiative, in 2008.

The rational side of my brain knows that this is a needed service. Over the past 10 years, I have had no less than eight insurance plans, dictated by the companies I served. In many cases, this annual healthcare switch required me to shift to a new set of doctors and dentists, as well a new set of procedures for seeing a specialist. Each year, a new chart was started, and I would sigh as I had to both fill out a poor photocopy form and then verbalize more than 30 years of medical history. While the law requires the ability to transfer medical records, only once have I been successful at the task. It was not fun.

Privacy, of course, is the primary fear. This is somewhat ironic, considering the lengths to which the general public trusts search engines to research and then self-diagnose conditions. I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only one who has gone into the doctor's office with a list of possible conditions and treatments in my head. I'm also pretty sure that this drives doctors crazy.

As it turns out, many in the medical field also have privacy concerns, but for a completely different reason: "the current HIPAA regulations and standards are so strict that doctors must make a note if they even saw a medical record of a patient not their own," a source familiar with the industry relayed to me. As it turns out, the laws designed to protect patients impede the portability of such data to the point that fears of lawsuits abound. Few, if any,. medical professionals will speak publicly on this topic for this very reason.

While a quick tour of Healthvault revealed a relatively benign place for consumers to upload records, Microsoft has made it clear that future iterations may involve advanced tracking technology, including RFID (radio frequency identification). To allay any fears, the site clearly states:

"Microsoft knows that you care about how your health information is used and shared. We're committed to protecting your privacy.

  • The Microsoft HealthVault record you create is controlled by you.
  • You decide what information goes into your HealthVault record.
  • You decide who can see and use your information on a case-by-case basis.
  • We do not use your health information for commercial purposes unless we ask and you say clearly that we may."

It is perhaps this last bullet that brings a much larger fear to the table: that these solutions, while a needed service to ensure proper healthcare, are simply another advertising revenue stream for the engines.

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