Microsoft announces Cloud for Healthcare, first industry-specific cloud service

Microsoft announced Tuesday a new cloud service designed specifically for healthcare, the first of many industry-specific cloud offerings.

The tech giant said Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare brings together existing services like chatbots, Microsoft 365, Teams and Azure as well as future capabilities that deliver automation and efficiency on high-value workflows.

The cloud offering also will enable "deep data analytics for both structured and unstructured data, that enable customers to turn insight into action," the company said in a blog post.

Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare is now available in public preview and through a free trial for the next six months. 

The cloud service will focus on what Microsoft has identified as important needs in healthcare, such as patient engagement, health team collaboration and improving operational efficiencies. 

Microsoft, Google and Amazon Web Services (AWS) are pushing deeper into healthcare in a battle to provide cloud computing and data storage technology to hospitals. In September, Mayo Clinic struck a sweeping partnership with Google to use the tech giant's cloud platform to accelerate innovation through digital technologies.

In July, Providence St. Joseph Health said it reached a data-storage agreement with Microsoft, and that same month electronic health records (EHRs) company Cerner named AWS its preferred cloud, artificial intelligence and machine learning provider.

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Microsoft has been operating at the front of the movement to bring differentiated cloud offerings to the enterprise healthcare market for some time, said Forrester senior analyst Jeff Becker.

"Healthcare organizations are increasingly comfortable pursuing cloud-enabled digital transformation initiatives, and Microsoft is capturing a large share of this emerging business," he said.

Among the new capabilities, the cloud service will enable providers to schedule telehealth visits in Microsoft Teams through the Bookings app, Microsoft said.

Teams, which supports HIPAA compliance and is HITRUST certified, brings together chat, voice and video meetings and offers recording and transcription, as well as secure messaging features, available across devices, the company said.

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Some of the healthcare systems that are already using Teams for virtual patient visits include St. Luke’s University Health Network, Stony Brook Medicine, Confluent Health, and Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust in the U.K.

"We know that technology has a role to play in accelerating progress for solutions to the pandemic and other pressing healthcare concerns and challenges. Looking ahead, we expect to see healthcare organizations continue to use newly implemented technology tools throughout the recovery period and into the new normal," Tom McGuinness, corporate vice president of global healthcare at Microsoft, and Gregory Moore, M.D., corporate vice president, health technology and alliances, wrote in the blog post.

Microsoft said it designed the cloud offering to enhance patient engagement by enabling providers to use technology tools to create personalized patient experiences. The cloud also will allow hospitals to maintain data throughout an interaction with a patient, the company said.

For example, a patient that has a medical problem might first visit a healthcare organization’s patient portal website. A chatbot would answer questions and screen the patient and then hand off to a call center agent for further triage. The agent could then schedule an appointment with a telehealth nurse, which could be held over Microsoft Teams video chat.

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If the patient comes in for a follow-up appointment at a clinic, all the information from the previous interactions will be available to the healthcare provider who sees the patient, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft also said it plans to make the system work with EHR providers such as Allscripts.

The company also will offer an integration between Teams and Power Apps to help organizations create apps and workflows "in hours or days, not weeks or months," Microsoft said.

In just two weeks, Swedish Health Services, the largest nonprofit health provider in the Seattle area, used Power Apps to build a solution to track critical supplies, according to the company.

The cloud platform is underpinned by a focus on interoperability, security and compliance, Microsoft said.

Last year, Microsoft was the first cloud to offer a generally available Azure FHIR service—which allows healthcare organizations to ingest and persist data in the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) format.

Microsoft also said healthcare organizations can leverage a “robust partner ecosystem," including its partnerships with Accenture, Adaptive Biotechnologies, Allscripts, DXC Technology, KPMG and Nuance to co-develop new solutions.