The coronavirus pandemic has put the world’s health care systems to the test, to say the least. The “flatten the curve” mantra is fundamentally about not overburdening these systems, after all — and Microsoft believes its Cloud for Healthcare can help. Announced this week at its Build 2020 event, Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare is a cloud offering purpose-built for the medical field. It’s the first in a family of Microsoft Industry Cloud solutions the company has designed for specific fields.
In materials distributed to the press, Microsoft said these “will integrate the Microsoft Cloud with an industry-specific data model, cross-cloud connectors, workflows, and APIs to provide industry solutions aligned to priority scenarios.” They’ll incorporate Microsoft products like Microsoft 365, Dynamics, Power Platform, and Azure and will rely on the company’s Common Data Model (CDM) approach to smooth out data sharing across applications. Microsoft promises “automation and efficiency on high value workflows” and deep data analysis on both structured and unstructured data.
The idea that every industry has unique needs, challenges, and advantages that require a tailored approach makes a lot of sense. And it’s commendable that Microsoft is beginning this initiative by focusing on health care at a time when the entire world is leaning so heavily on the field for survival. It’s also true that the medical field has notorious data problems, including inconsistency in labeling, and urgently needs solutions.
But it’s unclear how effective Microsoft’s CDM model — which standardizes data such that it can be used across all manner of applications — will be in solving that particular issue. The CDM site says it’s a metadata system that “makes it possible for data and its meaning to be shared across applications and business processes such as Microsoft Power Apps, Power BI, Dynamics 365, and Azure.” This could certainly aid organizations that are using Microsoft products, but it seems more geared toward operational data than, say, the sort of data on patients and diseases that researchers need.
What may help to fill that gap is Microsoft’s new open source Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) server. FHIR is a standard developed by a company called Health Level Seven International, and it’s designed to connect data sources like electronic health record systems (EHR) and research databases. It may not solve the problem of incomplete or inconsistent data from those sources, but it can ostensibly remove a pain point. FHIR is available now for Azure Stack Hub and Azure Stack.
Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare is partially aimed at telehealth, which is growing in importance because of the need to reduce the burden on hospital facilities and limit the number of potential COVID-19 contact points from people visiting those facilities. Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare’s telehealth capabilities range from booking appointments and billing to creating preventative care management programs and using IoT to remotely monitor patients. To help with this, it hooks into the Microsoft Healthcare Bot Service, an AI-powered virtual health assistant that can let people screen their own symptoms. Microsoft said in a blog post that more than 1,500 COVID-19 bots based on this service have gone live around the world since March, including at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare is now available in public preview and is free for six months.