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Microsoft added capabilities to Teams to help health care organizations communicate. (Microsoft photo)

Microsoft is expanding its healthcare offerings with three new tools that bring its cloud and artificial intelligence capabilities into hospitals through team collaboration, bots and health record sharing. The new products are the latest step toward Microsoft’s broader healthcare ambitions, seeking to position the company as a partner and platform for other players in the field.

“We recognize that we are not a health care company,” said Peter Lee, corporate VP at Microsoft Healthcare, in an interview GeekWire. “Our goal is to understand what our cloud and the services delivered in our cloud need to be like in order to support the success of as many startups, innovators, incumbents, big companies and small companies as possible.”

Collectively new products are the most significant development since Microsoft formally organized its health tech efforts under Microsoft Healthcare last summer. The announcement comes ahead of the health IT conference HIMSS19 in Orlando next week.

Peter Lee, a corporate vice president at Microsoft, leads the company’s efforts in applying AI technology to healthcare. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

Here’s what Microsoft unveiled on Thursday:

Microsoft 365 for hospital teams. Doctors need secure, compliant programs to communicate with their teams in real time. But in reality, Lee said, they often use sticky notes, consumer messaging apps and team huddles.

The company has added capabilities to Microsoft Teams, its rival to collaboration tool Slack, to help health care organizations communicate in a secure and compliant way. Users can send urgent messages and delegate tasks, and the platform can integrate with electronic health records systems.

Azure API for health record sharing. Microsoft has created an Azure API to help health systems talk to each other. This type of interoperability is a huge topic in the health tech world.

Lee contrasts the health record interoperability problem with airline tickets. You can buy a ticket from any number of booking websites and airlines, and everything works seamlessly. Part of what makes that possible is a common standard for the underlying data. In healthcare, Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources, or FHIR, could become that standard format.

By creating a secure cloud API platform that uses the FHIR format, Microsoft aims to unleash a wave of healthcare data services built on Azure. One pilot program was a service to monitor chemotherapy patient data across several hospitals, which was developed by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research in Seattle.

Microsoft Healthcare Bot. Introduced as a research project in 2017, the Microsoft Healthcare Bot is both an off-the-shelf service and a platform for deploying health-related bots. The bot includes a built-in symptom checker and can understand medical terminology.

“One of the most fundamental things you have to do is to get Azure to speak the language of healthcare natively,” said Lee.

One obvious application for the bot is to triage patients, but hospitals aren’t the only target customer. Premera Blue Cross built a conversational bot for users to look up the status of their insurance claims and get clarity on their benefits.

Microsoft’s Health Bot comes with off-the-shelf templates. (Microsoft photo)

The competition isn’t going anywhere: Microsoft’s new tools overlap with the health care programs of big tech competitors in a number of ways. Here are some of the advancements others have made:

But not everything in health care is a zero-sum game, and the challenges have brought these companies together on some issues.

“We are competing very hard against, for example, the other big cloud companies, but on [interoperability] we are all cooperating together,” said Lee. Microsoft joined Google, Amazon, IBM, Oracle and Salesforce last August in a pledge remove barriers to interoperability.

“This is one point that we all think is good for the world,” Lee said.

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