Microsoft Teams With Major Medical Center on Health Care Research

February 16, 2017, 2:28 PM UTC
Photograph by Getty Images

Microsoft on Thursday is launching Healthcare NeXT, a new health care and medical research effort, with a partnership with University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

UPMC is a pretty good buddy to have. The $15 billion health system encompasses more than 25 hospitals, 3,600 doctors, and a health network covering three million people.

The initiative falls under Microsoft Research’s New Experiences and Technologies organization—that’s where the acronym “NExT” comes from. “We’re creating a new internal incubator to create collaborations with great health care companies,” Peter Lee, the corporate vice president who is leading this charge, told Fortune.

“At NExT, we have one foot in research and one foot on the business side. We work a bit like an internal startup incubator and venture capital fund with the exit strategy to compel Microsoft senior leadership to bet big on new things,” Lee said in an interview.

Microsoft’s (MSFT) health-related efforts thus far have not exactly hit the cover off the ball. The company launched and then pulled Microsoft Band, a Fitbit (FIT) competitor. Ten years ago it debuted and eventually curtailed HealthVault, a repository for personal and family health information. (Google launched then killed a similar project called Google Health.) HealthVault is still available for existing users but has stopped taking on new people, Lee said.

But those efforts were not in vain, Lee insisted. “The idea of HealthVault is something I love and believe in but in the era of cloud in the U.S., where there has been a huge uptake in electronic medical records, you can now look at that HealthVault technology as a valuable utility—a connector that can, in a compliant way, connect data sources across different health care systems.”

In other words, the idea ofHealthVault is morphing from a product to a service running on Microsoft Azure cloud, which was not around when the consumer edition of HealthVault debuted.

Next week at the annual Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMMS) Conference in Orlando, Fla., Microsoft will discussHealthVault Insights, a cloud service that will provide researchers with additional artificial intelligence and analytics options for the data, Lee said.

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Microsoft also plans to talk up a new health-focused chatbot that could help people assess their symptoms or condition before going into a clinic. Another research project is InnerEye, an AI tool that will give radiation oncologists a 3D-contoured view of patient scans in minutes versus hours, Microsoft said.

One goal is to relieve physicians of mundane paperwork. This would be huge. Most clinician visits these days consist of the patient sitting on an exam table with the doctor looking at a screen and typing stuff in as opposed to looking at, talking to, and examining the patient.

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If technology can relieve even a fraction of that busy work—with bots that take dictation or perform data entry—it will be a huge contribution, Lee said. And if new HealthVault services can ease the flow of information (securely) between different EMR systems, that’s another big bonus.

Clearly, Microsoft is not alone with its focus on health and medical applications. IBM (IBM) is pouring big money into Watson-related AI efforts in medical and health care research. Asked how Microsoft’s efforts contrast with what IBM is doing, Lee did not want to comment on IBM’s stance. But, perhaps tellingly, he said Microsoft’s goal is to “democratize artificial intelligence” to improve health care.

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