Why are Google and Microsoft both so interested in health?
Because it's a big market that, surprisingly, makes less use of IT than other industries of comparable size. Google has just announced its move into the market, codenamed "Weaver", saying that "health information should be easier to access and organise, especially in ways that make it as simple as possible to find the information that is most relevant to a specific patient's needs".
Talk to anyone in the business of providing healthcare and you'll hear the same story: demographics are going to send healthcare costs through the hole in the ozone layer. As the demographic bulge of the baby boom reaches retirement age, many more people are living longer with chronic diseases.
There's a final trend that IT companies are noticing: although healthcare is an information-intensive industry, it has been slow to adopt IT systems. Despite the headlines about the NHS's massive IT project, many or most parts of healthcare are still paper-based.
Roll all these trends together, and healthcare providers from insurance companies to governments are trying to figure out ways to make delivering healthcare more efficient.
Ten years ago, doctors began complaining that patients were arriving in their surgeries primed with research information and demanding treatments they'd read about online. But now, part of making healthcare more efficient and cost-effective is getting patients involved in managing their own care.
This is where companies like Microsoft and Google come in, at least in the US: both companies hope to offer individuals a way to manage their own health records rather than leave doctors, hospitals or insurers in charge of them. Google announced a lengthy list of new health advisors last August; Microsoft's service has already begun accepting signups at healthvault.com.
Besides offering a way to store personal medical information so it can be accessed from anywhere, HealthVault can download data from a variety of home medical devices such as glucose monitors and blood pressure testers.
In theory, the idea is first to put the patient in control - you choose which professionals get to see your data; and second to enable better remote monitoring to cut down on the number of office visits and hospital emergencies.
Whether people will really be willing to trust these most intimate details to the hands of these two huge corporations is an unknown. But mobility and longer lives means that a patient's medical record may be left behind when they move away, to be expunged some years later.
It's entirely possible to find, in your 50s, that you have no accessible medical history and no idea when you were vaccinated or against what. And two companies with some of the biggest search engines could never bear to see that.
One day, perhaps you will be able to search for your medical records online - and be confident that only you or the relevant doctor will be able to view them. Stay tuned.
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