Microsoft makes big play for healthcare cloud business in competition with Google, Amazon

The new Microsoft Teams EHR connector, which is in private previews, enables clinicians and patients to launch Teams virtual visits right from Epic’s patient and provider portals. (Microsoft)

Microsoft's new cloud service designed specifically for healthcare will be generally available October 30, the tech giant anounced Tuesday.

The Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare service bring together existing services such as Teams, Azure IoT and chatbots to help healthcare organizations manage operations.

Microsoft, Google and Amazon Web Services (AWS) are all pushing deeper into healthcare in a battle to provide cloud computing and data storage technology to hospitals.

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Microsoft announced its first industry-specific cloud service back in May as part of a public preview.

The capabilities offered through the healthcare cloud service helps organizations scale up digital health technologies while also providing tools to improve data interoperability, workflow efficiency, and streamline interactions, the company said. 

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. 

The healthcare industry faces the challenge of "disconnectedness" with health data sitting in different siloes and the cloud offering helps to address these hurdles, according to Tom McGuinness, corporate vice president, worldwide health at Microsoft. 

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"At the highest level, the Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare is helping to bring together the robust set of healthcare specific capabilities that Microsoft already has that are aimed at helping our customers and partners deliver better experiences and support new care models," he said.

The pandemic has forced healthcare organizations to stress-test new ways of deploying care, such as telehealth and remote monitoring. Cloud computing can provide organizations with speed and agility to adjust to change and build resiliency, according to Microsoft.

"Healthcare providers have been reluctant to move and migrate from on-premise infrastructure to the cloud, but they have seen real value in the ability to create new agility in their business models and resiliency as they flex between physical and virtual points-of-care," McGuinness told Fierce Healthcare. "One of the main things we're hearing is that they need to have a broader tool kit and they need to be more agile in this chapter in healthcare."

Among the new capabilities, the cloud service will enable providers to schedule telehealth visits in Microsoft Teams through the Bookings app, Microsoft said. The new Microsoft Teams EHR connector, which is in private previews, enables clinicians and patients to launch Teams virtual visits right from Epic’s patient and provider portals. The company also developed application programing interfaces (APIs) to allow for Teams integration into other existing healthcare workflows.

RELATED: Mayo Clinic taps Google Cloud as strategic partner to accelerate innovation in AI, analytics and digital tools

"This capability helps to streamline what has historically been disconnected systems," McGuinness said. Microsoft is focused in making intergrations with other platforms and technologies as seamless as possible for clinicians and patients, he said.

"Virtual care is a critical piece of healthcare and we are working with our partners and customers to say, what does it look like across the care continuum for both physical and virtual visits," he said.

To improve interoperability, Cloud for Healthcare also supports Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR), which is a common data standard for healthcare. 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 FHIR format.

The platform also now enables data collection from medical devices, apps and remote monitoring tools through its Azure IoT Connector for FHIR.

A tool called Patient 360 based on HL7 FHIR enables health providers to get the full context into the patient’s history and their current encounters, conditions, procedures, and appointments, all fed from the EHR data repository with direct integration to the Azure FHIR service, the company said.

RELATED: Microsoft, Humana ink 7-year strategic partnership to leverage cloud, AI and voice technologies

Microsoft also said its working with companies including Accenture, Adaptive Biotechnologies, Allscripts, DXC Technology, Innovaccer, KPMG and Nuance to co-develop custom solutions. For instance, it partnered with Nuance to integrate its Dragon Ambient Experience with Teams. The integration captures and contextualizes physician-patient conversations, automatically documenting the encounters from within Teams.

Among the early adopters of Cloud for Healthcare are Cleveland Clinic, Providence St. Joseph, St. Luke’s University Health Network, and Helsinki University and Uusimaa Hospital District.

“There are a couple areas where I believe cloud technology for healthcare like Microsoft’s can play a critical role in a future that’s based on digital technologies—both focused on interoperability," said Matt Kull, Cleveland Clinic's chief information officer in a statement. "The first is interoperability between systems, allowing us to take data from health records and other data sources, over FHIR interfaces, and combine it together into a single place where it can be used to inform and deliver patient-centric care. The second is to enable real-time complex deep learning—by normalizing data from different systems in a way that allows complex algorithmic analyses to occur via AI or ML—and integrate research-based insights back into a clinical workflow."

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