Aetna launches personalized health search engine

The system would use members' demographic information and PHR data. Some worry the insurer's actions are too intrusive.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted April 7, 2008

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In an attempt to make its personal health records more interactive, Aetna announced last month the launch of Smart Source, a personalized search engine from which members can access medical information specific to their conditions and demographics.

While Aetna claims the system is a way to help its members make more informed decisions regarding their health, others fear insurer-run systems could create a way for health information to be used against members and physicians.

Aetna partnered with Healthline, a health information technology company based in San Francisco, to make searches through SmartSource relevant to each user's profile. The system takes into account the user's gender, age, ZIP code, health plan and employer in addition to information stored in the PHR to produce search results specific to that user.

Information includes basic health educational materials, commonly used medications and treatments for specific conditions, estimated health care costs, doctors in specific plans and information on Aetna programs that the member might be eligible for.

PHRs recently released by Microsoft and Google also allow users to link their records with relevant Web-based research. Those two systems allow the patient to control who can add to or view their records.

Edward L. Langston, MD, chair of the American Medical Association Board of Trustees, said while the AMA believes PHRs are "an important service" for patients, "[W]e are concerned that granting access to PHRs to a health insurer may have harmful implications for both patients and physicians.

"For example, we are concerned that a health insurer may use PHRs to obtain patient information that could result in a premium increase for patients, or could hold physicians responsible for providing care based solely on the patient-entered information in a PHR, which may or may not be complete or accurate."

Aetna spokeswoman Kate Prout said that they have heard similar concerns from others, but "that would not be a good business decision for us to do that."

She said the goal is to get consumers more involved in their health care "

Prout said the searches are not saved and the information is also behind a firewall so the company does not have access to it.

While the search uses specifics about each user to cull the information, she said the name of the searcher is kept private.

Bruce Bagley, MD, medical director of quality improvement for the American Academy of Family Physicians, said as long as the system has a secure connection in terms of how people log into it, "I think it's a good thing." But he said that assumes information patients enter themselves, and don't want the insurer to know, would be protected.

Dr. Bagley said the medical data contained in the PHR are things the insurer would have access to anyway, so if it wanted that information the insurer could get it regardless of a member's use of the PHR. His only concern was the possibility of finding an abnormal lab result online as opposed to hearing it from a physician who could discuss the situation and explain the results.

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