Google and Microsoft sign up for military duty

Fact: A September 2008 article in the Michigan Business Review holds that “An estimated 70 million people do have access to basic personal health records through their health insurers, with millions more scheduled to receive the service this year, according to health care benefit company Aetna.”  But that doesn’t mean they’re using a PHR.  Aetna also did a study just last year (2007) with the Financial Planning Association, according to the same article and found that “64 percent of respondents said they didn’t know what a personal health record was and of those who did, only 11 percent said they were currently using one.”

Analysis: In the battle to expand access to and use of PHRs, there’s great news on the way for a significant portion of the country: our millions of men and women in the military.

But first, a personal observation.  The importance of better military health support is a no-brainer. When I was working in government, back during the bloodiest days of the Iraq war, simultaneously two women made a great suggestion to me.  Both my wife and my deputy at DIA’s Requirements & Research group, Ms. Jeannie Layton, suggested that members of our team at work pay a morale visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  We did, and that first visit was so emotionally powerful, the stories and connections so profound, that we began making regular return visits. (Jeannie even wrote, movingly, of our experiences in an internal report and online blog, inspiring other groups to do the same.) 

Military health care is an important issue, and the information technologies available to DoD health centers (and Veterans Administration hospitals and facilities) need to be improved, taking advantage of advances in data sharing and management, along with better privacy-protection techniques – moving along with progress in personal health IT as a whole.

So at Microsoft we’ve been engaged in thinking of creative ways to utilize new technologies (and some existing ones in new ways) to support better military health care.  You’ll be reading about the issue more as the work bears more progress, but already we have some exciting new ideas.

And you might be surprised at a particular combinatorial facet that’s beginning to take shape. Recently, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Stephen Jones himself wrote on the DoD MHS blog (yes, there is one) about “a new partnership between the DoD and Google and Microsoft to develop a prototype personal health record both available to, and entirely controlled by the patient, and at no additional cost to the beneficiary. A first draft of the system is set to debut as early as December and we are very excited about the potential of this new technology.”

Google and Microsoft? With the Pentagon?

Yes, it’s true. Government Health IT magazine gave MS the headline just this past week, “Microsoft is lead developer on military PHR system,” and yet the eye-catching part of the story is the joint alignment of both Google and Microsoft in the project.

Microsoft Corp. is the lead developer in a partnership with the Military Health System and Google Inc. to develop a personal health record system for military health care beneficiaries… PHRs may include a number of different capabilities all or some of which may be included in any given system. Both Microsoft and Google introduced PHRs last year. Microsoft’s HealthVault PHR, unveiled in October 2007, allows users to store personal health information in a secure, encrypted database. The individual user controls what information goes in and who gets to see it. Google’s PHR, announced two weeks after Microsoft’s, emphasizes storage and movement of individual health records.

Now, PHRs are no silver bullet (couldn’t resist the pun) in improving the labyrinthine bureaucracy and layers of legacy IT systems that creakily provide health care to service men and women, not immediately.  And technology as a whole can’t be seen as able to provide simple solutions to some very complex organizational and fiscal issues.  Carol Diamond and my friend Clay Shirky make a persuasive case against overly simplistic views of what’s needed in a recent article in the Markle Foundation’s policy journal Health Affairs, “Health Information Technology: A Few Years of Magical Thinking?” They argue:

Proponents of health IT must resist “magical thinking,” such as the notion that technology will transform our broken system, absent integrated work on policy or incentives…. Computers are amplifiers. If you computerize an inefficient system, you will simply make it inefficient, faster. IT can contribute to improving care only when underlying system processes are transformed at the same time.”


Radically better processes, plus radically better technologies. That’s a great formula. We’ll see what we can do together to achieve it for our military.

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