How will Microsoft's initiatives impact health care?

At a big medical conference last week, Microsoft dove deeper into an maelstrom of industry health care solutions aimed at meeting the demands of government regulators, hospitals, insurance firms, and consumers. Can the team from Redmond swim the distance against competitors including IBM and Google?

The challenge before database software providers today is to address the critical and lucrative market of healthcare information access for doctors and patients, in a way that fulfills the mandates of government regulations for accountability, and at the same time fulfills the requirements of government regulations for security...while staying viable for the everyday user.

Microsoft is positioning itself to meet this challenge. Although it was Google CEO Eric Schmidt who delivered the keynote at this year's edition of Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer got the same honor last year.

Last October, following up on Ballmer's HIMSS address that year, Microsoft launched HealthVault -- a consumer software and services platform intended to give consumers better control over their health care records -- together with HealthVault Search.

During this year's HIMSS, Microsoft augmented the consumer-oriented HealthVault with Amalga, a new family of enterprise health care software covering clinical, operational, and financial applications.

Steve Aylward, general manager for Microsoft's US Health and Life Sciences Group, focused on "familiarity" as one of Microsoft's key strengths in tackling the health care market, in a recent Q&A session.

"The familiarity of Microsoft technology can really help healthcare organizations and governments -- the largest healthcare providers in the world -- to increase their efficiency and accuracy, and thereby reduce errors in utilizing their existing technologies," Aylward contended during the Q&A, which was provided by Microsoft to journalists last week.

It would be clear to almost anyone that this "familiarity" stems from Microsoft's already huge entrenched base in the office applications field. Other vendors working in the area of electronic health records have included IBM, Verizon, WebMD, and AOL founder Steve Case's Revolution Health.

But unlike IBM, which has been concentrating more of its efforts of late toward back office software, or Google, whose platform is much more consumer-oriented, Microsoft's products are already well established in nearly every market segment, from home PC users to large enterprises.

Like Google Health, Microsoft's HealthVault can be considered a "cloud" platform in which patient's health records are being moved off of paper and onto storage networks, including leased storage space through the Internet.

But especially with the addition of Amalga, Microsoft also seems to be doing a particularly comprenehsive job of honing in the consumer privacy concerns first dealt with under the HIPAA law and now re-emerging in proposed new legislation now before Congress.

Despite the passage of HIPAA a dozen years ago or so, health care remains a very hot topic in Washington, DC these days.

In a BetaNews search of pending legislation before Congress, we turned up over 1,000 legislation packages containing "health care" as an exact phrase. Although some of this legislation is attempting to establish a uniform and government-subsidized national health care system, a total of nine legislative bills contain the exact phrase "electronic health record."

For instance, H.R. 5442, the TRUST in Health Information Act of 2008, introduced last month by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D - Mass.), is a bill which promises to "provide individuals with access to health information of which they are a subject [and] to ensure personal privacy, security, and confidentiality with respect to health related information in promoting the development of a nationwide interoperable health information infrastructure," among other things.

Next: Convincing the user that he's in control of his medical data...

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