Microsoft again aims to crack healthcare market with cloud tools

Microsoft is releasing new cloud technologies to fight disease and help healthcare companies abide by privacy laws as the software giant looks to win more business as the medical sector moves to internet-based computing.

Microsoft unveiled a tool for its Azure service that puts powerful computing resources to the task of gene-analysis for precision medicine—things like tailoring therapies to specific cancers. It’s already in use at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which will report its progress with extremely rare cancers at the American Association for Cancer Research conference in April, said Peter Lee, a Microsoft vice president for artificial intelligence and research.

The company is also releasing a blueprint for firms that want to move health data to the cloud while following privacy regulations. The company made the announcements ahead of the annual HIMSS conference and exposition next week in Las Vegas.

Microsoft-CROP.jpg
Signage displayed outside the Microsoft Corp. main campus in Redmond, Washington, U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. Photographer: David Ryder/Bloomberg

It’s part of a renewed push into the health space by Microsoft, which has had several fits and starts in an area that has bedeviled many technology companies. Microsoft began efforts to become a major player in healthcare in the late 1990s, but it’s not been able to find a consistent product line to gain market share.

A year ago, Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella tasked Lee to look at where Microsoft’s cloud, AI and research work could make the company indispensable to healthcare clients. Amazon.com has also announced plans to offer health services to its own employees, increasing the chance some medical companies will see the e-commerce and cloud leader as a rival, not a partner.

Microsoft appeals to larger, highly regulated customers in the industry, while Amazon does better with health startups, said Kris Gösser, marketing vice president at Datica, which helps health companies move to the cloud with Azure and Amazon Web Services. Many of Microsoft’s healthcare products and ideas aren’t new, but large, conservative firms are more likely to trust the company because it’s a familiar partner, he said.

Microsoft is also offering templates for health companies that want to use its Teams corporate chat program, a rival to Slack, while ensuring conversations follow the industry’s privacy and data-retention rules.

The company has also used its machine-learning tools to create Project Empower MD, a tool that automatically transcribes patient and doctor conversations, along with key moments from appointments, and formats the information in a standard way.

In several of these cases, Microsoft isn’t creating finished products to sell but rather handing health companies tools that their own software engineers can use for in-house applications. Project Empower MD, for example, can be tweaked to how different doctors work, said Lee.

“For anyone who wants to innovate, anyone who wants to be able to extract the value of cloud computing and AI in healthcare, it’s very important that the Microsoft platforms be a place for that," Lee said.