Microsoft's Peter Lee, Greg Moore on the role of tech giants in healthcare

NEW YORK—Every year, more than 3,500 infants die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in the U.S. One of these children was the son of John Kahan, chief data analytics officer at Microsoft.

Since then, Kahan—who lost his son 15 years ago—has made it his mission for no parent to lose a child to SIDS. Working with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Kahan’s data science team found new genetic correlations that showed statistical increases in SIDS. Building on that work, Microsoft is working with Seattle Children’s Hospital to create a cloud-based database with the aim of using sequenced whole genomes as an additional data set to identify SIDS risk factors.

Kahan's work is just one example of Microsoft’s growing footprint in healthcare, particularly with Microsoft Azure, the company’s cloud and artificial intelligence platform, wrote Peter Lee, Microsoft Healthcare corporate vice president, in a recent blog post

Microsoft also welcomed Greg Moore, M.D., the new corporate vice president for health technology and alliances, to its team. A neuroradiologist by training and a medical researcher, Moore moved over to Microsoft in April from another tech giant, Google Cloud, where he served as a senior healthcare leader for two years.

RELATED: Microsoft, Walgreens team up to develop new healthcare delivery models

Lee and Moore were in New York City recently, and FierceHealthcare spoke with them about Microsoft's work in pediatric research, its partnership with Walgreens and the role Microsoft can play in healthcare.

FierceHealthcare: Tell me more about your collaboration with Seattle Children’s Research Institute?

Peter Lee: We’ve been active in trying to support this emerging idea of public databases, gene databases, and we last year we worked with DNAnexus and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to do the whole genome sequencing of all 5,700 of St. Jude’s patients, and we then created a very large repository of whole genomes to support accelerating research in rare cancers. We’ve been really excited about the uptake there. At last count, there are over 6,000 researchers now accessing and analyzing data in that St. Jude Cloud.

That initiative focused on the rarest cancers and it’s a very narrow focus. We’re trying to take that same thought process to other diseases where the study of the human genome might play a role, and that’s the context of the work with Seattle Children’s. It really started by looking at the data from the CDC on a large amount of both public and self-reported data on infant births and deaths and going through intensive data analytics of that to identify correlations between certain behaviors of parents and the instances of SIDS. That, in turn, has led to clues that have allowed researchers at Seattle Children’s and their collaborators to focus in on specific genetic-based studies. That gave us the idea to create another repository that would help researchers zoom in. It helps put our genetics business on the map, it serves the public good and we’re learning a lot about how to do these things, especially in a world where security and compliance matter a lot.

FH: Greg, you are leading health technology and alliances at Microsoft. What are you focused on?

Greg Moore: My role is to take all the research that Peter’s team has developed and apply that in the real world with Microsoft’s strategic partners, Walgreens being one. And there are others that are coming. Being able to implement that and move the needle in healthcare and get that feedback loop from our partners so that we know where we can improve, that is so incredibly important. Health technology has not had that feedback loop. That’s exciting to me.

PL: Greg is going to be taking on incubating some new technologies as well. His background is in neuroradiology, so that makes it natural for him to start taking over some of the things we have been developing and maybe striking out in new directions in the imaging space, as one example.

FH: What's the latest with your Walgreens partnership?

GM: This is a company that is a retailer and a healthcare company, so we’re focused on how can we take the digital tools that Microsoft has as its core competency and bring those tools across a large multinational cooperation to help their business be more effective. Close to 80% of the U.S. population lives within five miles from a Walgreens. That’s an incredible physical footprint, and people are in and out of Walgreens stores much more than they are their doctor’s office or a healthcare provider. So we want to bring digital technology together with what Walgreens has in their physical footprint to help with medication adherence, immunizations and these basics of primary care.

In the coming months, you’ll see us doing pilots in several markets and bringing Microsoft and other technology to those stores. That could be in the area of chronic disease management with cloud-connected devices and with onsite medical and technical support for customers, so creating a digital health hub in the corner of the Walgreens store.

FH: Back in August, Microsoft, along with five other companies, pledged to support healthcare interoperability. Have there been any developments related to that pledge?

PL: I think we’re all feeling pressure to make good in a public, tangible way through technology demonstration projects. Stepping back from that, I think all the public clouds are making very rapid progress on integrating the best technical ideas and health data interoperability into their clouds and platforms. We’ve really embraced standardization such as FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) and HL7, and we’ve invested a lot into integrating standards into our services and platforms. 

RELATED: Amazon, Google, Microsoft and IBM pledge support for healthcare interoperability

GM: There have been some very tangible examples of our investments in this area such as the demonstrations at HIMSS of the Azure API for FHIR that helps customers work with machine learning on protected health information in the cloud.

It takes a tremendous amount of engineering work to teach the public cloud to understand healthcare data in its native forms, whether it’s electronic health record data, DICOM for imaging, HL7 or files for genomics. We have taught the public cloud to speak the language of healthcare, and by doing that we’re avoiding creating another silo or multiple silos of data. So that “plumbing” is there to enable data to flow.

FH: As technology companies, like Microsoft, move into healthcare, what impact do you think this will have on the healthcare industry?

PL: Coming from technology, I’m realizing just how big healthcare is. This is a $7.5 trillion or $8 trillion market, and from that perspective, there is going to be the need for all the tech giants to play in this space. There seems to be this massive shift happening to the cloud to embrace data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning. So it’s important for all the cloud players to work together enough to do the right thing so that when that shift completes in the next decade, we end up in a better spot than we are now. We all want to win, more than our fair share of that future market, but we don’t want to recreate the same data silos that we have today.

GM: As a healthcare professional, I’m heartened to see all the technology investments being made now in healthcare and that hasn’t always happened before historically. Technology has avoided this space in the past because of regulatory and other concerns and now to embrace it in significant ways will ultimately have an incredibly positive outcome on patients.