Microsoft launches HealthVault to manage your health search and medical records — but it will hurt a bit

UPDATED: See below. Also, this is now part one of a two-part post; for the second part, which actually reviews the HealthVault service, click here.Microsoft has finally unveiled its first stab at managing personal health records on the Web, and it’s an interesting, if underwhelming, attempt to realize a future in which individuals have much more control over their personal health information.

Called HealthVault, the Microsoft offering combines yet another healthcare-info search engine with the record-storage application itself. Both are very clearly Microsoft products, with all the clunkiness and user inconvenience you’ve come to expect from the Redmond giant.

ms-health-search-diabetes.JPGFor starters, to use any of this you apparently have to give up Firefox, and possibly any other browser alternative to Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer. For instance, the search engine, dubbed HealthVault Search, doesn’t seem to want to display results in Firefox (click the upper image at left to see it full-sized).

Viewed in IE, however, the page displays perfectly. (In the lower-left image, I’m using IE Tab, a Firefox extension that renders pages using the native IE engine).

ms-health-search-diabetes-ie.JPG

To be fair, the Firefox version eventually does display the same information a scroll or two down the page, past the field of hypnotic green boxes. But this is still an inauspicious sign.

Once you can see it, the information provided by HealthVault search seems generally well organized, with a few exceptions. The display is somewhat reminiscent of RightHealth.com, which I reviewed here, although a bit cleaner if less comprehensive. Searching on conditions like “heart disease” or “diabetes” returns a set of organized links grouped under heading such as “personal health,” “conditions,” “procedures,” “drugs” and so forth. One major omission, however, is anything pertaining to symptoms, so if you have chest pain and jump straight to “heart disease” on this engine, you’re not going to find what you’re looking for. For that, you need to search on “chest pain.” While this makes sense in a logic-chopping sort of way, it almost certainly doesn’t map onto the way ordinary people are actually going to use health search. Surely it makes more sense to cross-index such info six ways from Sunday just to make sure people can find it when they need it.

The search results also pop up a major article on the subject from sources such as the NIH, Wikipedia or the Mayo Clinic, as well as a series of Web links via MSN search and some sponsored links that are clearly identified and in many respects even helpful, such as a widget that proffers related books on Amazon. Overall, it’s a decent effort if not exactly a knockout, particularly given that Microsoft is on more of an even footing with other startups in this area given its historical difficulty driving traffic to its Live.com service in the first place.

And small wonder, for when I try to get a look at HealthVault medical records, I’m immediately plunged into Microsoft Hell. My first attempt to create a HealthVault account forces me to register a Live.com account, which in turn wantsrequires me to divulge a bunch of personal information (birthdate, gender, occupation, industry, state of residence and Zip code) to MSN for no particularly good reason. It also asks for my marital status and the number of children in the household, but fortunately both questions are “optional.”

Then we get to HealthVault itself, which doesn’t consider my Live.com password strong enough and asks me to change it to something harder to crack. There’s a link to click for advice on how to do this, but clicking it somehow causes the site to resize my entire browser window to a narrow bar on the right-hand side of the screen. (The help file that opens there also doesn’t actually contain any advice on making a strong password, just standard FAQbait on what to do when, say, you forget your Live password — an option I’m already strongly considering.) I’m actually kind of bewildered here — you’ll just have to take my word when I say that I worry a lot about password security and that the one HealthVault is rejecting involves a mix of alphanumerics and in no way, shape or form resembles any word or phrase in English or any other language.

Aha. Turns out the FAQ does have the info I was looking for — buried in a link under “How to change your password.” You can see it here, assuming that link actually works. (I was only using lowercase letters and numbers.) I can’t blame Microsoft for wanting individuals to feel their medical info is safe, but this quickly runs into the central paradox of password security, which is that if you make the requirements too stringent, people won’t be able to remember their passwords and will jot them down on a Post-It, which is not exactly the most secure medium in the world.

With the addition of a capital letter or two, my password is in business. Or so it seems until I try to actually log in with it, at which point the site refuses to recognize it. I go through the password reset process, and it dings me because a new password can’t be the same as the old one — which would seem to imply that it should actually recognize the old one, right? No dice — the login page still barfs on me. So I change the password and finally the site logs me in. If Google gave users even a fraction this much trouble, it would be lucky to be worth $180,000, much less $180 billion.

But it’s not over. I answer a few more personal questions (name and birthdate, mostly) and then get an error page: “Could not return to program: The location information is missing for this program.” Well, that’s charming. Oh, it turns out I haven’t yet validated my e-mail address for either Live.com or HealthVault. A few moments later and I’m finally in.

At this point, I think I’ll cut my losses and review HealthVault itself in a separate post, which I’ll link here when it’s up. (UPDATE: My review of HealthVault and some overarching issues about personal medical records is now up here.)In the meantime, the NYT and the WSJ have more on the background of all this.

UPDATE: Description of search engine expanded considerably.

UPDATE REDUX: I descend into Microsoft Hell in order to establish a HealthVault account.

FINAL UPDATE: Added a link to my HealthVault review.