Microsoft tries again to tackle healthcare with new services, tools

Microsoft is trying again to tackle the healthcare market with a concerted strategy involving artificial intelligence, productivity tools, and partnerships.

Just over a decade ago, Microsoft was buying healthcare companies and hiring doctors in an attempt to tackle the healthcare market. But Microsoft ended up selling off many of its acquired healthcare assets and divesting itself of most of the associated employees.

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On February 16, the company announced it would try again to step up its healthcare focus. This time, it's via its new AI + Research Group's Healthcare NExT effort and in conjunction with various external partners like the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Microsoft Research vice president Peter Lee is heading up the new effort.

Healthcare NExT's mission statement (from Microsoft's announcement) is to "deeply integrate greenfield research and health technology product development, as well as establish a new model at Microsoft for strategic health industry partnerships."

Microsoft is extending its HealthVault patient-records service with a new HealthVault Insights research project that is aimed to provide users with analytics around patient health. Project InnerEye is another "AI-powered" software tool for radiotherapy planning. And a Microsoft AI health chatbot technology, another research project, will help partners build their own health chatbots.

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Today's announcement didn't mention at all Microsoft's Health service, which is in development. Even though Microsoft recently seemingly discontinued its Microsoft Band fitness hardware, the accompanying Microsoft Health service is not going away, officials have said. Microsoft's plan, moving forward, is to push Microsoft Health as a service for obtaining health and fitness insights regardless of what type of devices and platforms to which it's connected.

It's not just health-focused research and AI services that Microsoft is looking to provide. Microsoft also is providing new Office 365 Virtual Health Templates that the company hopes will help developers and customers build on top of Skype for Business to build patient-focused systems.

While Microsoft never stopped targeting healthcare as one of key vertical sales targets, the company has been stepping back from its first-party focus on that market for the past several years.

Microsoft sold off its 50 percent stake in Caradigm to GE Healthcare, its partner in that joint venture, last year. Caradigm is where Microsoft moved almost all of the hundreds people and handful of products that formerly were part of its Health Services Group. (The exception was the HealthVault service and team, which remained part of Microsoft.)

Among the Microsoft technologies Microsoft had moved over to Caradigm were the Amalga data aggregation system for hospitals, and the Sentillion healthcare identity-management products. GE is contributing a couple of its healthcare software products to the new venture, as well.

Microsoft bought Sentillion in December 2010. Amalga was based on the Azyxxi assets Microsoft bought back in 2006.

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