Aetna Chief Downplays Google Health's Potential

A top medical insurance executive on Wednesday downplayed the potential impact of services from Microsoft and Google that are aimed at helping users store and share their health records with providers.

Google Health went into beta on Monday. It follows the launch of similar efforts, such as Microsoft's Health Vault.

"I think anything we can do to kill the paper is good, and having health data stored in central places is helpful as long as we have good security and standards," said Ronald Williams, CEO of Aetna, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's CIO Symposium event.

But what the software companies don't have, he asserted, is an "interest in improving the system or looking for gaps in care. When the data goes there, it is really static and stored."

Williams argued that those efforts cannot compare to Aetna's in-house customer records portal, the CareEngine System, which launched in 2006.

He called the system Aetna's "secret sauce." It compiles member data from sources such as medical, pharmacy and lab claims, then compares it against a database of medical literature and research in an attempt to spot potential problems and need for additional care. The system generates alerts to patients and physicians regarding such findings.

Privacy concerns have been raised about Google Health because the company plans to link it with some of its other services. Google will keep individual health records private but may release "anonymous, aggregated" data, according to a spokeswoman.

Aetna conducts broad analysis of its customer data, such as to track the way various conditions are being treated in geographic conditions, but "is not looking to use it in a commercial way," Williams said.

The Hartford, Connecticut, company had revenue of US$27 billion in 2007 and services more than 17 million medical plan members, according to its Web site.

Neither Google or Microsoft could be immediately reached to respond to Williams' comments.