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Peter Lee, a corporate vice president at Microsoft Research and head of its Healthcare NExT initiative. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

Every day, doctors and nurses across the country do a complicated dance around patient care. They turn back and forth as a mother describes her child’s symptoms, trying to listen and simultaneously log information in the electronic health record. They huddle with a team to coordinate a cancer patient’s care using whiteboards, post-it notes and clipboards.

Microsoft wants to use technology to make things easier and more efficient in those situations. The company announced a slew of new cloud- and artificial-intelligence-fueled technologies Wednesday as part of its Healthcare NExT program, all aimed at helping healthcare providers wage a technology revolution in the industry.

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The company announced four new projects: A healthcare-focused Azure cloud blueprint; Microsoft Genomics, a platform that powers genetic analysis and personalized medicine; A new template for Microsoft Teams specialized for healthcare providers; and Empower MD: an artificial intelligence platform that can assist doctors by listening in and learning from their conversations with patients.

The AI scribe was developed by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), in collaboration with Microsoft, as a proof of concept. The application analyzes a doctor’s conversation with a patient and then makes suggestions in the patient’s electronic health record.

Ideally, a doctor using the scribe could devote their full attention to a patient during an exam. Then he or she could turn to the electronic health record and accept suggestions the scribe makes, like a diagnosis or notes for future treatment.

Microsoft is just one of several tech giants launching new initiatives in health technology, competing against Amazon, Google, Apple as well as a growing number of technology startups in an effort to solve some of the most intractable problems in healthcare. SayKara, a Seattle based startup, is even making an AI-powered scribe for doctors similar to the one Microsoft unveiled today.

Peter Lee, a corporate vice president at Microsoft Research and head of the Healthcare NExT initiative, said the new projects are tightly focused on improving care in hospitals and clinics. “We really just want to make what doctors and nurses do, and their day-to-day working lives, better and more satisfying and more effective,” Lee said. “Really, everything starts from there.”

Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform is the backbone of all the new projects. Cloud computing allows for more powerful and flexible technology tools, but tight laws around patient privacy have traditionally slowed down or prevented healthcare organizations from taking full advantage of cloud tech. In the U.S., the rules for patient data privacy come from the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

Microsoft’s new tech platforms include one that helps hospitals take advantage of personalized medicine. (Photo courtesy of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, via Microsoft)

Lee said Microsoft Research saw this first-hand while working with partners on various projects, like the Microsoft Intelligent Network for Eyecare (MINE). In those projects, partners upload patient data to Azure and work with Microsoft to build machine learning tools around it. MINE learned to predict from an eye scan which patients are at risk of developing eye diseases or blindness, for one example.

“We’ve been doing a whole bunch of individual projects, and while we are so excited about the outcomes… getting the data actually to the cloud ended up being way more complicated and more mysterious than we thought it should be, because it’s such a highly regulated space,” Lee said. “As we worked through all those we started to understand the patterns. Those patterns of use and standard operating procedures are all codified in this new Azure blueprint.”

The hope is that the Azure blueprint will help healthcare providers build cloud and machine learning tools that meet their needs without spending time and engineering effort on navigating patient privacy. Privacy protocols will already be built-in, to some extent.

“We’re hoping this really greases the skids for any organizations that have important datasets — to be able to, in a compliant way, move their data to the cloud and also engage with us collaboratively to do state of the art machine learning,” Lee said.

Seattle startup KenSci, which uses machine learning to predict things like patient death and risk of heart attacks, is one of the organizations already using the template to move data to Azure. Microsoft also recently announced a partnership with Seattle biotech company Adaptive Biotechnology to use Azure cloud computing and machine learning to develop a test that can scan a patient’s immune system to diagnose disease.

Cloud computing and machine learning both underpin EmpowerMD, which Lee described as a “learning platform” that allows providers to build smart tools to help in a doctor’s day-to-day work. “It’s in the ambient environment in the exam room, and it listens to the doctor-patient encounter and learns from that,” Lee said. “Then on top of that platform, you can build lots of different kinds of applications.”

“We were really motivated to work on this because, throughout the last year, we’ve been working shoulder to shoulder with so many great doctors and one of the most painful things we saw about the work that they do is they spend an hour and a half, two hours every day just entering their encounter notes into EHR,” Lee said.

While Microsoft worked with UPMC to develop the AI scribe as a proof of concept, Lee said the company plans to let its partners and other innovators do the bulk of development for future applications. See more about how the intelligent scribe works in the video below.

But the company does have a direct hand in another project announced today: New “health team huddle templates,” an expansion of its Microsoft Teams group chat tools that will let care teams coordinate without concern for patient privacy.

Lee likened the daily “huddle” of a care team to the morning scrum that engineers at Microsoft and other tech companies are used to. In the tech world, everyone on a team gathers in one room or phones in remotely to get on the same page for the day’s work. Some peopel might video call to the meeting, and most everyone would be taking notes on some kind of screen.

But in hospitals, “there’s no technology, there’s just clipboards and post-it notes,” Lee said, partially because of restrictions around patient privacy. For care teams working in surgery or in round-the-clock care, communicating efficiently without breaching patient privacy laws can be an immense challenge.

“What you’ll oftentimes see is things being passed by word of mouth. Sometimes people will use email, but they have to be careful for compliance reasons. You’ll see, sometimes, a whiteboard in the patient’s room, and it’s always a trick to decide what gets erased and what doesn’t. So that daily huddle is really important,” Lee said.

The new Teams huddle offering aims to fix that problem. It includes collaboration tools on a HIPAA compliant Azure infrastructure so that care team members can communicate easily and securely, even from their personal smartphones.

Lee said it also opens the door wider for virtual collaboration with others, like a patient’s primary care doctor or a minor patient’s parents.

The fourth offering is Microsoft Genomics. This is a fully fledged, Azure-based service that gives providers and researchers tools to store and analyze genetic information.

Genomics is increasingly important in healthcare as new innovations leverage genetic data to diagnose disease and create personalized treatment plans. But, there’s a catch: Genomics generates terabytes of data and requires high-powered cloud and machine learning technology to be analyzed. Of course, all that technology must be HIPAA compliant.

Microsoft’s launch partner with the service is St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, one of the leading forces in understanding and treating childhood diseases like cancer.

Each of the new projects points to Microsoft’s narrow focus in healthcare but also the company’s growing reach and expertise in the area. It’s not alone among tech companies pursuing health initiatives. Apple is opening clinics for employees and studying the Apple Watch as a medical device. Amazon is dabbling in pharmacy and medical supply services and entering a completely new healthcare venture with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase.

But Microsoft has taken a different tack. Lee said the strength of Healthcare NExT, which was launched just a year ago, is that it isn’t a business division inside Microsoft. It operates more like a loose initiative that takes the opportunity to apply any Microsoft technology to a challenge in healthcare.

That has let the project focus on creating high-powered, highly targeted technology programs that solve distinct problems in the healthcare industry. It’s hard to compare Microsoft’s new initiatives to Apple and Amazon’s because they are so different.

Lee said it’s probable that Microsoft will move further towards providing healthcare products and services or expanding its focus into other parts of the industry in the future. But for now, he said, the company is happy with the direction it’s taking.

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