Microsoft today unveiled their new consumer health and search site Health Vault. Built around their fairly impressive health search engine, Microsoft hopes that the site will become a central repository for people to store and selectively share their health information and records, including patient records, test results, and prescription info.

I have no doubt that eventually health records will be stored online. Easier access and sharing of health information between doctors and hospitals is something that can lead to better and quicker diagnoses, less headaches when changing doctors or moving to a new town, and less chance of a serious condition being missed by a doctor. Many large companies are betting on the future of online health information portals, Google, Intel, and Cisco all have initiatives underway in this area. But there are major hurdles toward gaining public trust and acceptance, not least of which is security concerns.

Personal health records are something most people guard very closely -- as closely as financial account information. I agree with Search Engine Land's Greg Sterling, who points out that the success of HealthVault or any similar endeavor is tied very closely to the outcome of universal health care proposals in the United States. People will be far more likely to feel comfortable putting their health records online knowing that their insurance coverage won't be in jeopardy should that information leak out.

Microsoft says that they have taken pains in creating a secure environment to ensure user privacy and control over who has access to health records. The company says they worked "in cooperation with leading privacy advocates, respected security experts and dozens of the world’s leading healthcare organizations" to create a platform that users can feel comfortable storing their sensitive health data on.

HealthVault stores data on its own infrastructure, separate from other Microsoft properties, and users have control over who gets access to their personal information. Health searches done on the site are conducted anonymously and not linked to users' personal data. Microsoft acknowledges that users are unlikely to add much personal information to the site regardless of privacy protections promised by the company, but they hope that users will give permission for their doctors to utilize the site as a central storage repository for health information.

In that vein, Microsoft announced a number of partners for the site including NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, Johnson & Johnson, the Mayo Clinic, Diet.com, and Texas Instruments. The partners fall into three main categories: hospitals and doctors, web sites, and device manufacturers who will allow users to automatically upload readings from medical devices such as blood glucose monitors or heart monitors to their personal HealthVault accounts.

On the search side, the new HealthVault health search vertical is rather impressive. Searches on the site combine relational refinements (i.e., search for "wheat" and the site will recommend that you search for "celiac disease" as well), article content from sources like Wikipedia and the Mayo Clinic, and web results in an attractively laid out search results page. The site also serves up sponsored results and book recommendations from Amazon.

Tying into HealthVault, members of the site can save search results to a personal "health scrapbook." Article and web site results are added to the scrapbook individually, allowing users to pick and choose their favorite information and create a private, personal resource for whatever it is they're searching.

Conclusion

I personally would be very hesitant to store medical records online. Having once been almost burned by my health insurance company because they had access to health records, I am very protective of my medical records. I generally think that a lot of people feel that way about their personal medical information.

Would you trust Microsoft, or Google, or Intel, or any other company with your personal health information? If health care was guaranteed to you regardless of your medical history would you be more apt to store health records online? What do you think of HealthVault's search? Better or worse than competing search engines in the health vertical? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.