Bringing Health Records Online

When he worked in the emergency room, Dr. James Mault often had technology capable of saving patients’ lives. What he didn’t have was the technology to alert him to what life saving medications or treatments might kill them. “Sadly, as a trauma surgeon in the ER, people come in unconscious in many circumstances and you have no idea what medications they are taking, what their allergies might be, and people die,” says Mault. “People die around the world because doctors don’t have the information they need about them to save their lives.”

The information isn’t here yet. But, after more than a decade of false starts and failed attempts to bring medical records online, the day may finally be on the horizon when doctors can access that data.

Much of the credit for pushing medical records into the 21st century goes to recent efforts by tech giants Google and Microsoft, where Mault works on technology health care initiatives. Last fall, a technology platform that helps hospitals, pharmacies, and others build computer programs to collect and store patients’ medical information, as well as share that data with other medical providers. that provides a centralized online location for users to store their medical records.

Both companies have signed on hundreds of partners and, today, Microsoft announced that the nation’s largest prescription provider CVS CareMark is joining HealthVault. The pharmacy chain, which has also signed on to Google’s initiative, plans to develop programs that will allow users to see their pharmacy records online and receive alerts for prescription renewals by the end of the summer. Using HealthVault’s technology, CVS will eventually enable customers to see prescriptions they have filled at other pharmacies, as well as see prescription prices under their insurance plan, and medical lab results. “What is exciting for us is there are so many possibilities,” says Helena Foulkes, senior vice president of health services at CVS CareMark.

Foulkes says the influence of the tech giants has helped finally make such digital record sharing possible. Without them, health care providers had to make deals individually with other creators of electronic medical records, as well as struggle to develop technology that would be compatible with others’ systems. “You really need big players like Microsoft HealthVault to make some of the connections,” says Foulkes.

Part of the reason Microsoft and Google are able to change the space is because there’s a financial incentive for them that doesn’t exist for, say, a doctor that takes HMO plans. Though both Microsoft and Google’s services are free, many HealthVault users include links to Microsoft’s health search site, where users can research prescriptions or ailments. Microsoft plans to sell ads on its health search site related to the queries. Microsoft anticipates that the market for search related health advertising is between $500 million and $1 billion annually.

Google has not made it clear how it will make money from the health site. CEO Eric Schmidt has said the company has no plans to sell ads related to patients’ medical records. It could make money in the future from providing technical solutions for health care providers or driving more traffic to its related properties, such as search.

To be sure, the day when an ER physician can access a trauma patient’s entire medical history online after seeing their driver’s license is still far off. But Mault can finally see it. His kids, after all, have their health records online. “Having the information with a patient is going to be game changing.”