(Bloomberg) -- Microsoft Corp. is releasing a service to help health-care companies move vast amounts of patient data to its cloud and connect with other related systems in a bid to offer clinicians, individuals and researchers a more comprehensive view of patient health.
The tool, based on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform and a national standard for exchanging health records, will let disparate health systems talk to each other, for example hooking up patient records with pharmacy systems, fitness devices and others more seamlessly.Health care lags behind some other industries in moving data to internet-based storage, and while health records have mostly gone digital, they are often stored in different databases that can’t share information easily. That makes it hard to create systems that use new artificial intelligence and data analysis techniques to track patient well-being and find new targeted therapies. A better-connected health-care system would provide clinicians with more complete profiles of their patients, researchers with more data to study and individuals with more information to take control of their health, according to Microsoft. It’s also an attempt to help Microsoft attract companies to Azure over market leader Amazon Web Services.
Microsoft will also continue to add new health-care tools to Azure, said Peter Lee, vice president of Microsoft Healthcare, in an interview. “It’s hard to think of data standards for interoperability as a sexy topic,” he said, but it’s critical to a host of new healthcare applications. The software giant has been pushing into health care in fits and starts over the past several years. Recently it has been working on cloud and artificial-intelligence products to help reduce data-entry tasks for doctors, triage patients and provide more-targeted cancer care. Last month, Microsoft announced an Azure deal with Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. The drugstore company said it will use Azure for services that connect patients’ health-care data with clinicians and pharmacists, among other things.
To be successful in health care, Microsoft must train its software and artificial intelligence tools to be familiar with medical needs and terminology and must comply with a complex set of privacy requirements around healthcare data. Microsoft will announce the new Azure service next week at the HIMSS healthcare conference in Orlando, Florida. One example the company will show is using the service to create an app for scheduling hospital nurses. Microsoft also plans to announce about three dozen organizations that are already trying the new tool, Lee said.
In other health-care initiatives, Microsoft is making its health-care bot more widely available. The tool helps health-care organizations build their own chatbots and virtual assistants. After being introduced in 2017 as a research project, the service is already in use by customers like Premera Blue Cross for helping customers get general information on insurance claims and benefits. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta developed an app for patients to ask questions about medication or details of their schedule. About 350 new organizations have began building their own bots since an initial preview a few months ago, Lee said
Microsoft also has a pilot project to use the health bot in the future to help patients find clinical trials for new drugs and therapies, Lee said. The idea is to combine work Microsoft is already doing on using artificial intelligence to scan complex medical documents related to clinical trial information with a bot interface. A patient could, for example, search for breast cancer trials and answer some questions from the bot that would then recommend trials that might be appropriate. Right now trial documents can be hard to comb though and understand, Lee said.
The health bot can also be used to help customers stick with prescriptions and ask them questions via text if they don’t fill their prescriptions to detect problems. Sometimes patients forget what a particular drug is if they’ve removed it from the container – Microsoft’s computer vision software could let patients scan the pills and identify them, Lee said.
The Redmond, Washington-based company is also working on getting health-care teams on to its Microsoft Teams chat software -- which competes with Slack Technologies Inc. – in order to better coordinate care, particularly when there are as many as 20 people caring for a single patient and most rely on mobile phones as they walk around hospitals. New capabilities will allow electronic health records that comply with the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources standard to be integrated with Teams, so that hospital staff can access patient records in the same app where they take notes, message with other team members and manage care. Microsoft would also like to enable health-care teams to add parents of hospitalized patients to these chat groups, in order to keep them up to speed on their child’s care, Lee said.