Microsoft has big plans for healthcare, and it's taking a different path to the rest of big tech

Common data models, a cloud just for this vertical and IoT for monitoring patients: Microsoft is taking on healthcare once again.

Healthcare seems to be top of the to-do lists of CEOs of tech's biggest companies: Amazon is launching its own healthcare business, Apple's turning the iPhone into a patient engagement and diagnostics tool, while Google's parent company Alphabet is betting heavily on healthcare through its investment arm, AI and analytics

And the other big tech giant isn't getting left behind either: Microsoft has also got big plans. It's been looking at healthcare in the hope that technology could play a role in helping to address some of the health industry's most pressing problems. 

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"Some of the longest-standing challenges are around disconnectedness of data, disconnectedness of care teams, and frankly disconnectedness of patients to their own care," says Tom McGuinness, corporate VP of global healthcare & life sciences at Microsoft. 

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Complaints about different parts of the healthcare world not being joined up – a separation between health and social care, or between primary care and hospital medicine and so on – isn't new. But the pandemic has intensified another emerging disconnect: between virtual care and face-to-face care. 

"Some of the more interesting questions that we're working with our partners and customers to help solve are, how do you now make virtual care, as a point-of-care engagement, better connected to the physical care? We know that patients want a more connected experience, and we know they don't want to have to have the same discussion in multiple settings," says McGuinness.

With the virtual-physical separation in mind, Microsoft launched its first vertical cloud product, Cloud for Healthcare, late last year. The software has an emphasis on features for telehealth for companies more used to providing face-to-face care.

The Bookings app in Teams, for example, debuted in Cloud for Healthcare and can be used by clinicians to schedule, manage, and carry out telehealth consultations in Teams. Meanwhile, the Healthcare Bot can help triage patients -- COVID-19-specific bots are used for self-assessment in a number of countries -- as well as connect them to human operators, who can arrange medical appointments where needed.

Other telehealth-focused features in Cloud for Healthcare involve collaboration between members of medical teams, whether they're on site or working remotely, while other functionality is aimed at presenting physicians with a picture of a patient's history and medical status by drawing in different sources of information into a single overview from virtual and in person visits – not always easy given the disparate types and origins of medical information. 

Interoperability among medical systems and sources of data has long been a problem. Microsoft is backing the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FIHR) standard for securely sharing private information between healthcare systems, which aims to make it easier for systems to take in and process health data for users including AI analytics and machine learning. 

"So much of health data is in so many different silos. We all know that, that's a big problem... As we begin to need to mix more and more datasets and as more data is in the cloud for large analytics and big data purposes, I think it will be a strength that we'll start to see take a larger and larger role in enabling new solutions to be spun up a lot quicker, or entities to be able to get value out of a new solution," Greg Caressi, SVP at Frost & Sullivan, told ZDNet.

Common data models will also play a role in remote patient monitoring, which Cloud for Healthcare also supports  through Azure for IoT. Using technology for remote patient monitoring is another healthcare tech whose use has been growing against the background of the pandemic, enabling doctors to keep track of how patients are doing without having to bring them into hospital. 

"We see IoT as playing a really important role in healthcare across settings," McGuinness says.

"One of the things we're working heavily on is, how do those IoT connectors help the care team really ingest all the monitoring data that exists in a hospital, whether it's in the ward or in the ICU? A lot of our partners are working on AI-enabled algorithms that help catch signs of distress earlier in the acute care setting, whether it's sepsis or other types of common challenges."

To that end, Microsoft released the Azure IoT Connector for FHIR in preview last year, to underpin the use of medical IoT devices with Cloud for Healthcare. Typically these devices monitor patients with long-term health conditions and pass the information onto the individual's healthcare team to review, to get a picture of how their condition is being managed outside of hospitals and GPs' offices. 

Gregg Pessin, senior research director at analyst Gartner, believes the rise in consumer and medical-grade monitoring devices could ultimately prove useful to the healthcare community.  

"You've got a lot of companies that are producing a lot of devices and hospitals want that data – think about an Apple Watch and its competitors, blood pressure cuffs, weigh scales, pulse oximeters and glucometers for diabetic patients. That data needs to be accessible to the GPs of the world, and it's difficult for them to get access to that. I think that Microsoft is attempting to figure out a way to make that easier. I don't think they're quite there yet, but I think there a huge opportunity there," he tells ZDNet. 

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One of Microsoft's biggest bets in healthcare comes in the field of natural language input. In April this year, Microsoft acquired AI-powered speech-technology company Nuance for $19.7bn. While Nuance powers the likes of Siri, nearly two-thirds of its revenue comes from the healthcare industry. It's Microsoft's second-biggest acquisition ever.

According to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, the deal will take Microsoft into a new part of healthcare: clinician-patient interactions, and give the company a $500 billion market to aim at. One of Nuance's products, Dragon Ambient eXperience (DAX), converts the conversation between doctor and patient into written words that can form part of the doctor's documentation of the appointment: for example, by inputting information into the patient's medical records. 

Aside from the acquisition, the pair have been partnering on healthcare products since 2019, including an industrystack that included speech recognition and processing, clinical documentation, decision support, and Azure AI and natural language tools. 

The collaboration, focused on DAX, aims to "improve efficiency and engagement" for doctors and their patients, McGuinness says, noting how a physician can often end up in a consultation with their back to patient as they to type their clinical notes. A more automated approach can help offload the administrative burden, and return the focus back to the patient, he says.

Microsoft's recent focus on healthcare isn't the first time its launched initiatives aimed at helping the company make a bigger splash in the healthcare IT market. And not all have gone according to plan.

In 2017, it set up a unit called Healthcare NeXT, part of its AI and Research division, to work on research, product development, and partnering with healthcare organisations. Just prior to setting up Healthcare NeXT, it sold its share of a joint healthcare initiative, that it set up with GE in 2012, back to its partner. 

As well as enterprise efforts, Microsoft has a history in consumer health products. It released a couple of iterations of a fitness wearable but stopped the line in 2016. A health records tool, HealthVault, meant for use by individuals and health professionals, was shuttered in 2019.

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And Microsoft is just one of a number of big tech players stepping up their focus on healthcare, an industry which has proved an appealing target for IT companies for a number of reasons. First, it's a huge industry and traditionally recession-proof (it accounts for almost a fifth of the US economy). Second, it's an industry driven by data, with lots of different formats – text, images, scan results, voice – and from lots of different sources. And third, it's a large and diverse technology environment, with plenty of room for consolidation, orchestration, and digital transformation.

For both healthcare providers and their IT suppliers, COVID-19 could also prove a transition point. Gartner's Pessin believes the pandemic is driving a significant change in how healthcare organisations approach technology spending.

"There's been a very slow ramp of the usage of technology in healthcare over the last few decades. We have all sensed in the industry the tipping point was coming in terms of what we would call the digitalization of healthcare. But momentum has been building, and then the pandemic occurred. I think what that did was it demonstrated to the world that there was a strong technology play that could benefit healthcare," he says.