How Microsoft is shaking up healthcare

In June, Microsoft revealed the names of two new executives joining its healthcare division, heightening curiosity about the Redmond, Wash.-based tech giant's plans to step into the industry.

Microsoft has been building out its healthcare team for several years. Between 2013 and 2017 Microsoft filed 73 patents related to healthcare, most of which focused on developing AI and patient monitoring capabilities, according to a recent analysis by Ernst & Young. The company's work in healthcare has also spanned cloud computing, cybersecurity and precision medicine.

Here are five major inroads Microsoft has made in the healthcare industry during the past year:

Artificial intelligence

Microsoft's flagship healthcare initiative is Healthcare NExT, an effort the company launched in early 2017. The initiative serves as an umbrella program for various AI and cloud computing projects related to healthcare, such as an AI-chatbot the company rolled out at Milwaukee-based Aurora Health Care and Pittsburgh-based UPMC in December 2017.

Microsoft solidified its expansion into AI and healthcare in March, rebranding its Microsoft Intelligent Network for Eyecare as the AI Network for Healthcare to emphasize the company's work across multiple medical specialties. In May, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella also unveiled a $25M funding program for disability research during a speech at the company's developer conference in Seattle.

Cloud computing

When Dr. Peter Lee, corporate vice president of AI and research at Microsoft Healthcare, announced the two new executives — Jim Weinstein, DO, and Joshua Mandel, MD — joining the division, he noted both new hires would be working on the company's cloud initiatives, pushing hospitals to make greater use of the cloud and developing the foundation for an open cloud architecture. It's a significant commitment — in mid-2017, Microsoft cut thousands of jobs as part of its shift to cloud services.

A range of healthcare companies already use Microsoft's cloud services. New Orleans-based Ochsner Health System is developing an AI platform to predict adverse patient outcomes using Epic's machine learning capabilities and Azure, Microsoft's cloud computing service. Health IT vendors like Allscripts and SnapMD also offer customers the option to purchase select platforms on Azure.

Cybersecurity

Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith became a vocal advocate of cybersecurity preparedness after the worldwide ransomware attack WannaCry in May 2017. The ransomware exploited a vulnerability Microsoft had created a patch for two months prior, but many organizations — including hospitals — had not appropriately updated their systems before the attack.

WannaCry hit healthcare organizations across the world, with the U.K. National Health Service canceling almost 20,000 appointments as a result of the ransomware attack. One year after the attack, the U.K. Department of Health and Social Care, which oversees the NHS, announced it had entered into a deal with Microsoft to improve the health service's cybersecurity resilience.

Genomics and precision medicine

In February, Microsoft launched a set of cloud-based processing tools for clinicians and scientists pursuing genomics research in the U.S., Western Europe and Southeast Asia. Microsoft developed the service, dubbed Microsoft Genomics, in partnership with Memphis, Tenn.-based St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and DNAnexus, a genomic data management platform Microsoft has helped finance.

The tech giant has also pursued research in the genomics space. In January, a team of scientists from Microsoft Research, UC Los Angeles and the Cambridge, Mass.-based Broad Institute published a study in Nature Biomedical Engineering detailing how they used AI models to improve CRISPR gene-editing outcomes.

Telehealth

Microsoft on July 2 unveiled a project to expand broadband coverage in rural areas. For the project, Microsoft partnered with broadband wireless solutions provider Radwin to introduce internet solutions that leverage TV white spaces, or the unused spectrum between TV stations, to deliver internet connectivity to underserved communities. The partnership with Radwin is part of Microsoft's Airband Initiative.

The project with Radwin builds on a commitment Microsoft made in a July 2017 report, which detailed the importance of internet connectivity and outlined a three-step plan to reduce the rural broadband gap. The report highlighted the implications of broadband access for a range of industries, including healthcare, and discussed the role internet-assisted telemedicine may play in addressing physician shortages in rural areas.

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