Microsoft brings AI to healthcare with new partner program

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Already established as a major player in artificial intelligence, Microsoft Corp.. is aiming to make the technology a foundation of the healthcare industry with the launch Thursday of a new partnership program called Healthcare NExT.

The program brings together Microsoft’s latest innovations in AI with its Azure cloud computing capabilities in an effort to advance medical research and improve patient care, said Peter Lee, corporate vice president of Microsoft Research NExT. He added that the new program will “deeply integrate greenfield research and health technology product development,” while also helping the company establish a new model for strategic health industry partnerships.

“Our goal is to enable a new wave of innovation and impact using Microsoft’s deep AI expertise and global-scale cloud,” Lee wrote in a blog post announcing the program.

As part of the initiative, Microsoft is teaming up with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center on the first Healthcare NExT strategic research partnership. The two organizations will attempt to create AI technologies that can empower clinicians while making medical workers more productive. If the collaboration is successful, the two partners may also commercialize their efforts, Microsoft said.

A second initiative will see Microsoft Genomics, the company’s cloud-based genetic analysis, sequencing and processing service, team up with genome informatics data management company DNAnexus Inc. and BC Platforms Ltd., a bioinformatics and genome data management company. The partners will work on making the sample-to-answer process easier and faster through an Azure-powered genome analysis pipeline.

Other initiatives include work on chatbots with the aim of creating AI-powered conversational healthcare tools. One partner, Premera Blue Cross, which is the largest health plan provider in the Pacific Northwest, plans to use Microsoft’s health bot technology to transform how its members can look up information about their health benefits.

Microsoft is also planning to adapt its Skype for Business communications platform. In a second blog post, the company announced the publication of new developer templates that can extend Skype into a platform for virtual healthcare. “Office 365 with Skype for Business Online addresses the critical communication needs of healthcare providers, and these templates enable new mediums for care coordination for patients without requiring an Office 365 subscription,” said Andrew Bybee, principal group program manager of the Skype for Business team at Microsoft.

Some of Microsoft’s early partners include GE Healthcare, which is building Virtual Office Visit technology to increase patients’ access to care while reducing costs. Meanwhile, online healthcare provider RingMD is hoping to implement Skype for Business for virtual consultations.

Microsoft isn’t alone in its efforts to use technology to boost healthcare. One recent initiative saw the American Cancer Society team up with IBM Corp. to use its Watson service to filter data from a variety of sources to provide personalized treatments to oncology patients. Meanwhile, the U.K.’s National Healthcare System is using Google Inc.’s DeepMind platform to research ways of detecting eye disease from simple scans.

Image courtesy of Microsoft