Microsoft has launched a major personal health record initiative based on a secure website that allows users to store and share their health records using a free online service.

The HealthVault portal allows users to store and share their medical histories, immunisation details, and data from monitoring devices such as glucose and cholestoral levels. A dedicated health search engine will enable easy navigation and organisation of users’ health data.

Users will be able to download medical information, such as laboratory results or x-rays, from the web sites of their healthcare provider. They will also be able to directly download data from HealthVault-compatible digital health monitors and devices, and store the data on their PHR.

Individual users will then be able to elect to provide access to parts of their PHRs to their doctor, family member or carer through a secure email invitation. Microsoft stresses that all data stored in HealthVault will be secure and pledges it will not mine or sell data.

With the launch of HealthVault Microsoft has succeeded in stealing a march on the launch of a similar ‘health record bank’ service by arch-rival Google, understood to have ambitions around linking search technology with PHRs.

HealthVault was launched in the US last week by the software giant, with 40 healthcare providers, health management device manufacturers and patient advocacy organisations saying they will participate. There is no word on plans for a UK or European launch.

Microsoft plans to develop HealthVault as a hub for which different healthcare organisations will develop compatible HealthVault applications. The company says there will be a network effect, with the value of the platform and applications growing as more organisations join and connect.

Microsoft describes HealthVault as a ‘software and services’ platform that is designed to help people better manage their health information at no cost. Revenue is to be generated through advertising linked to the HealthVault search engine.

In tandem with the portal Microsoft launched HealthVault Search, described as a powerful new vertical health search tool that is designed to intuitively organise the most relevant online health content. It is envisaged that HealthVault Search will eventually allow users to connect directly with HealthVault compatible solutions.

The health search tool is integrated with Microsoft’s Live Search and accessible through theHeathVault website.

Peter Neupert, corporate vice president of the Health Solutions Group at Microsoft, said at last week’s launch: “Our focus is simple: to empower people to lead healthy lives. The launch of HealthVault makes it possible for people to collect their private health information on their terms and for companies across the health industry to deliver compatible tools and services built on the HealthVault platform.”