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Friday, March 14, 2008

Smart and Personal Health Search Engine Offered By Insurer

American health insurer and benefits provider Aetna has launched a "smart" web-based search engine that uses personal medical history and other background information to make it easier for their members to research and find health information that is relevant and useful to them personally, such as drugs and treatments available for their particular conditions, estimated healthcare costs and local specialists who participate in their health plan.

The company, who has teamed up with health information technology company Healthline Networks to provide the new SmartSource service, said it wants to help its members to manage their own healthcare.

The system has already been piloted among Aetna's 35,000 employees and will gradually be rolled out to its members starting in August this year.

Meg McCabe, Aetna's vice president of medical and eHealth products, said in a press statement yesterday that the company wants to be an industry leader in giving personalized health information to its members, and that the new service:

"Pulls information from a variety of Aetna web resources to intelligently organize search results based on a member's insurance plan, zip code, and overall health, thereby helping members to become more engaged in their health care decisions."

The technical challenge of providing relevant and useful health information in an age of information overload (you can spend hours researching a particular illness on the internet these days and still not find anything useful to your particular case) is the bringing together of a person's medical history, local information about where they live, and other personal data, and then use this to probe the vast array of medical knowledge that is now available in digital form.

By teaming up with Healthline, Aetna claims that SmartSource meets this challenge, because it takes into account personal information such as the user's gender, age, zip code, employer and health care plan, as well as information stored in their personal health record (PHR). This customized information, or member profile, together with a suite of online tools, acts like an intelligent search engine that probes a unique collection of resources, including:

* Aetna InteliHealth (developed with Harvard Medical School and Columbia School of Dental Medicine): an online consumer health information website that contains user friendly health resources.

* Aetna DocFind: a directory where the user can find local physicians, hospitals, specialists, dentists, pharmacies, eye care centers and other health facilities who participate in their health plan.

* Estimate the Cost of Care: helps users work out average costs of medical and dental procedures, prescription drugs, office visits and medical tests based on their zip code.

* Healthwise Knowledgebase: this is like a decision support resource that helps users make informed choices about treatment options according to their own needs and preferences.

Concerns have been voiced by various interest groups that using personal data in this way opens up the possibility that it will be used against the individual. For example, it could be used to reject applications or raise premiums.

McCabe told the New York Times it would not be a good business decision to use this information to raise premiums or reject applications. She said the company would also ensure that the "information is secured and shared, based on the member's purposes", and there was a need to "develop a relationship with our members based on trust".

In its news release, Aetna describes itself as serving "approximately 36.7 million people with information and resources", but it is not clear how many of these will be offered the new service. Media reports quote figures of up to 16.8 million members.

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