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Health records site raises privacy issue

SEATTLE - Microsoft Corp. launched a website yesterday for managing personal health and medical information, but privacy advocates worry that neither the technology nor US law will protect patients' most confidential details.

From the consumer's point of view, Microsoft's HealthVault site is part filing cabinet, part library, and part fax machine for an individual's or a family's medical records and notes.

The free site can store medical histories, immunization, and other records from doctors' offices and hospital visits, including data from devices like heart monitors. It is also tied to a health information search engine the software maker launched last month.

Users can dole out access to different slices of their health data via e-mailed invitations to doctors, family members, and other people as the need arises.

Microsoft has been kicking around the idea of a health site since at least 2000, when chief executive Steve Ballmer described a "health vault" to financial professionals in New York.

The software maker isn't the first to jump into the ring. Across the country, groups of providers are starting "regional health information organizations" to share data electronically.

Insurance providers and private companies market their own flavors of patient-controlled storehouses of records, and employers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. offer such tools to workers.

Steve Case, cofounder of AOL, has launched Revolution Health, an information website that offers a records management tool for paying members, and Google Inc. has indicated it will launch a service.

Microsoft's Windows operating system runs more than 90 percent of the world's desktop computers, including those in hospitals and doctors offices. The HealthVault site works with different operating systems and browsers, but Microsoft may have an edge with Windows desktop applications. The company launched one such program yesterday that helps upload data from devices like heart rate monitors.

The HealthVault site itself doesn't do much more than provide a window into stored information and a mechanism for sharing it. Microsoft hopes hospitals, doctors offices, advocacy groups, and insurance companies will build Web applications.

As the industry increases its use of data sharing, opportunities for privacy violations will multiply, said Sue Blevins, president of the D.C.-based think tank Institute for Health Freedom.

The 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, gives hospitals, doctors, insurance companies and other related entities access to patients' records without consent for various purposes.

This alone troubles Blevins, but "adding electronic ease just magnifies the problem," she said. Patients need to be able to control their own data, she said.

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