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Aetna Smartens Up Medical Search

Wednesday, March 12, 2008 - 12:39
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Plenty of companies are working on better engines to search the Web for health information. Now insurance heavyweight Aetna is making it personal.

The company is rolling out a search service that takes into account a member’s personal health information, including past diagnoses and health-plan details.

So if your record shows you suffer from sinusitis, a symptom search for “headache” in the so-called SmartSource system, accessed through Aetna’s member Web site, would tend to favor sinus pain over brain tumors. While reading about sinusitis, clicking on a “Doctors” tab would pull up ear-nose-throat docs in your network and near your zip code.

Clicking a “Medications” tab shows drugs used to treat the condition. Another tab lists discounts, disease-management programs and other particulars available under the user’s plan. Provider-specific pricing information should be coming soon. “We’ve got it; we should be able to display it,” John Bahl, head of online product design for the company’s e-health department, told Health Blog. (See Aetna’s announcement anddemo, and a story from the New York Times.)

A key component of the service is a computerized brain from Healthline Networks Inc., which parses searches and connects terms for symptoms, diagnoses and treatments together, as well as articles and additional information. A visual map (click on image above) lets consumers see how various terms and concepts connect.

Privacy may prove to be a catch: Many patients aren’t keen on giving their insurer too much additional information. Aetna says it follows HIPAA and safeguards patient data rigorously, and won’t consider the information members provide for claims or pricing decisions. Healthline says it doesn’t hold on to personal health information after searches are complete, and never knows the searcher’s identity.

One benefit Aetna sees from such a system: Tools and advice already on its Web site, but hard to find, can be set to show up when they’re most appropriate to a particular member.

Aetna’s own employees have been the guinea pigs for the past six weeks or so. This year, the company plans to roll the service out to 25 companies and perhaps 2 million people, starting this spring. Not all employers using Aetna subscribe to the personal health-record feature, but the insurer plans to make SmartSource available to their employees eventually anyway, though it won’t be quite so personalized.

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