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Microsoft’s Healthcare NExT aims to partner the tech giant’s AI, cloud, and collaboration and business optimization technology with healthcare industry leaders to create innovative products. (Microsoft Photo)

Healthcare is a cluttered industry, to say the least. A tangle of care providers, a complex payment system and a labyrinth of regulation combine to make the industry resistant to rapid change and innovation.

Yet innovation is needed. Healthcare costs per capita are higher in the United States than in almost any other country in the world, and are growing at an unsustainable pace. And compared to other industrialized countries, Americans still tend to have more health problems.

There’s also no end to how tech is working to answer the challenges in healthcare. Seattle and Philadelphia-based Accolade is approaching the problem by helping patients navigate the system; Amazon could put its AI assistant Alexa to use in the area; and companies like Seattle startup KenSci are using tech to predict which patients will get sick.

Now Microsoft is joining the ranks of tech companies working to take on healthcare’s thorniest issues with its ambitious Healthcare NExT initiative. Launched this week, the program aims to leverage Microsoft tools like the cloud and artificial intelligence to solve a slew of issues in the health system.

Peter Lee, corporate vice president of Microsoft Research NExT. (Microsoft Photo)

It’s a departure from the company’s previous healthcare projects, which have focused on data-based patient programs like Microsoft Health.

The new initiative will set up partnerships between Microsoft’s AI and Research organization and players in the healthcare industry, starting with a huge collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The idea is that Microsoft’s research and technology expertise will work with UPMC’s product development experts to build tech solutions that are shaped by the needs they are serving. This kind of synergy between the realities of everyday healthcare and the products designed to solve them has long been a stumbling block in healthcare tech initiatives.

“We are incredibly energized about the opportunities to make a difference in health care,” Peter Lee, the corporate vice president of Microsoft Research NExT, wrote on the company’s blog.

“We’ve been listening carefully to our customers and partners within the health care sector, and we’ve heard their message: Let’s work together, innovate together and create solutions that can empower people to lead healthier lives.”

It’s no exaggeration that improved healthcare systems can improve and even save lives: the cost, time, and energy saved by more efficient information and workflow tools could have a huge impact on the industry, and the health of patients.

“Despite UPMC’s efforts to stay on the leading edge of technology, too often our clinicians and patients feel as though they’re serving the technology rather than the other way around,” Dr. Steven Shapiro, chief medical and scientific officer of UMPC and president of UPMC’s Health Services division, said in the blog post.

“With Microsoft, we have a shared vision of empowering clinicians by reducing the burden of electronic paperwork and allowing the doctor to focus on the sacred doctor-patient relationship.”

Other projects in the works include patient-focused solutions, like using Microsoft AI research to build healthcare chatbots, and physician-focused solutions, like the Microsoft Genomics‘ project to process samples more quickly using Azure’s cloud computing.

However, arriving at the ambitious solutions Microsoft has laid out won’t be a walk in the park.

Getting FDA approval for new products and ensuring they comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) requires years of planning, testing and paperwork. Impending changes to the Affordable Care Act could have huge unforeseen impacts on healthcare systems. And culture clashes between the technology and healthcare worlds can make working together on products a challenge.

Microsoft’s focus on partnering with healthcare players bodes well for the success of the initiative, but only time will tell if that collaboration can overcome the many hurdles in changing the healthcare system.

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