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Harnessing the power of AI to transform healthcare

One of the many remarkable things about artificial intelligence is that while we tend to think of it as something that will have a big effect in the not-too-distant future, it is already transforming people’s lives in profound and powerful ways today. In factories and warehouses, AI is improving workplace safety by scanning thousands of videos to detect potential risks. In the U.S., researchers are exploring how AI can help public health organizations around the world prevent the spread of deadly diseases like Ebola, Chikungunya, and Zika by detecting the presence of pathogens in the environment and stopping transmission to humans before outbreaks can begin.

I believe this is the true promise and challenge of AI – using these new technologies to create a healthier and safer world for everyone. Now that AI has given computers the ability to recognize words and images, discover patterns in complex systems and reason and learn much like people do, it is enabling our devices to behave more naturally and more responsively. This is transforming how we understand the world and augmenting our uniquely human talents and abilities in ways that will enable us to begin to find answers to some of humanity’s most pressing challenges.

This is particularly true when it comes to human health. Today, it is possible to imagine a world where we have discovered new approaches that enable us to address some of our most pressing challenges in healthcare, including heart disease, chronic illnesses, and cancer. The good news is that innovators around the globe are already working on these issues. From detection to preventive care and personalized medicine, the opportunities to us AI to improve outcomes and reduce costs appear to be nearly limitless.

Ethan Jackson, a Microsoft researcher who is leading Project Premonition. (Photo credit: Brian Smale)
Ethan Jackson, a Microsoft researcher who is leading Project Premonition. (Photo credit: Brian Smale)

In India, for example, Microsoft is proud to work with Apollo Hospitals, one of nation’s largest private healthcare companies, to use AI to improve detection of cardiac illnesses that cause more than 3 million heart attacks in that country every year. Until now, it’s been difficult for doctors to identify patients who are at risk for coronary disease because most prediction models are based on studies conducted in Europe and North America and don’t apply well to Indian populations. For example, high LDL cholesterol, which is a significant cause of heart attacks in western countries, is less common in India.

Our approach is to combine the rich data and deep expertise that Apollo offers with Microsoft’s powerful cloud and AI capabilities to develop a scoring system to identify patients in India who are at high risk for suffering a heart attack.

To do this, a team of Apollo clinicians and data scientist started by reviewing more than 400,000 patient records from its hospitals around the country and found that nearly 60,000 patients had suffered a cardiac event after a health checkup. The challenge was to uncover the risk factors in the data that existing models had overlooked. To do this, they uploaded all the data they had collected to the cloud using Microsoft Azure and then worked with Microsoft Azure Machine Learning services to search for hidden correlations.

The team started with 100 potential risk factors and 200 lab data points. Using the massive computing power of the cloud, they trained machine learning algorithms to find the statistical significance of each factor in the occurrence of future heart attacks. This enabled them to create a model that identified 21 risk factors in Indian populations. Dr. K. Shiv Kumar, Apollo Hospitals’ chief of Chief of Cardiology, said the resulting model is twice as accurate at predicting the probability of future coronary disease as previous models. Not only is this transforming how physician’s conduct preventive health checkups, but they are now developing an AI-powered app that would allow anyone to find their heart risk score without visiting a doctor for a detailed health checkup.

In China, Ray Zhang, CEO of  a startup company called Airdoc, recruited a team of engineers to develop an AI-based diagnostic tool that can instantly detect signs of chronic illnesses including diabetes, hypertension, arteriosclerosis, age-related macular degeneration, and more – simply by taking a high-resolution image of the back of the eye.

The device takes advantage of the fact that examining the human retina is an effective way to assess the health not just of the eye, but to look for evidence of other diseases. To create it, the Airdoc team used thousands of retinal scans to create an algorithm using Microsoft Azure’s machine learning capabilities that is trained to look for tiny abnormalities such as specks, spots, and deformed blood vessels that can be warning signs for a wide range of health issues.

The Airdoc device is similar to the scanner optometrists use for routine eye exams. To use it, a patient sit on a stool, place their chin on a padded brace, and look into an eyepiece. The algorithm then automatically adjusts the angle until a green cross comes into focus and captures a high-resolution, medical-grade image that is instantly uploaded to the cloud, where it takes less than a second to conduct a detailed analysis that rates susceptibility to a long list diseases as either low, medium, or high. The results are then sent to the patient’s smartphone, with a recommendation to seek professional medical help if there are signs of potential problems.

Currently, the Airdoc device can recognize signs of more than 30 diseases. Eventually, it will be able to detect 200. The plan is to make it available in more than 1,000 hundreds optical retail stores across China over the next few years. The Airdoc device significantly reduces the amount of time physicians will need to spend reviewing and assessing scans, so they can focus more on identifying and treating patients with serious health issues. The potential to provide a simple and inexpensive way to detect not just eye problems but a wide range of diseases has the potential to transform when and how people begin treatment for chronic illnesses in China and around the world.

We’re also working with the Princess Margaret Cancer Center at University Health Centre in Toronto to redefine cancer treatment through a remarkable new approach called “single cell sequencing” that enables doctors to analyze the genetic makeup of every single cell in a cancerous tumor and then select a combination of drugs that is optimized to kill the greatest number of cancer cells. Typically today, doctors try one drug at a time to find the most effective combination for each individual patient. By utilizing the power of Microsoft Azure Machine Learning and the cloud, single cell sequencing is enabling doctors to predict how every cell will respond to each of the thousands of compounds that are available for cancer treatment and then create a truly personalized therapy based on the specific genetic characteristics of each cancerous tumor.

Azure also provides a common platform for sharing medical data and analytic tools with researchers and physicians across the country. Scientists at Princess Margaret Cancer Center now envision a time in the not-to-distant future when this kind of detailed genomic analysis will be available for every patient in Canada.

These examples are just the beginning when it comes to the outpouring of AI research and innovation Microsoft and its partners are involved in right now – and not just in healthcare. In future posts, I look forward to sharing how Microsoft is also helping innovators and entrepreneurs use the power of AI to transform the industries of agriculture and education.

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Launching today: ‘NextGen Health,’ Microsoft’s new podcast on the future of healthcare

Doctor talking with patient while looking at information on a deviceDoctor talking with patient while looking at information on a device

What’s next in healthcare? We’ve got some ideas. In NextGen Health, a new podcast series launching today from Microsoft, we guide you through the future of healthcare through interviews with providers who have already begun to use groundbreaking technologies and Microsoft Healthcare industry experts. Listen to the first episode of NextGen Health podcast here, or keep reading for a sneak peek on some of the stories we cover.

Reimagining healthcare

You’re at your doctor’s office. You’re sitting casually in the exam room. Meanwhile, a surgeon is examining your brain. Thankfully, the slices and neural pathways your doctor can see from nearly every angle are on the OpenSight, a HoloLens mixed-reality headset calibrated and developed for surgical use by medical imaging company and Microsoft healthcare partner Novarad.

According to Novarad executive Chris Bijou, the OpenSight’s three-dimensional model—derived from patient scans and overlaid in real time onto the patient’s body—provides precision medicine that creates better outcomes for caregiver and patient alike.

“The biggest thing is, you’re not actually looking at the computer and then trying to calculate in your brain. ‘How far is that rib or how far is that heart where you’re trying to get into that ventricle,’” Bijou said. “You’re putting it right onto the patient, looking right down into it.”

That’s just one great example from our episode about reimagining healthcare.

Empowering care teams

It’s been a hard day. You’ve just spent a long shift as a nurse on the ER floor. You’re tired, your head’s just hit the pillow, and ding! There goes the phone. Then again. And again. How are you supposed to maintain good morale—not to mention stay in compliance with legal regulations—when you can’t sleep because your fellow caregivers are communicating via text?

“This is just not an environment that clinicians can do their best work in,” says Emma Williams, Corporate Vice President at Microsoft focused on modern workplace for healthcare.

But if all of those communiques, as well as images and information related to patients, were moved into an app like Microsoft Teams tailored specifically for healthcare organizations, you would remove the risk of privacy violations—plus you’d finally get some rest. And that makes you excited to show up for work on your next shift.

“To be able to deliver the right information, to the right people, at the right time will be a huge innovation,” Williams says. “We believe we can wrap those systems in a bubble of communication and collaboration that’s mobile first, that brings teams together, that allows them to be more highly effective.”

Listen to our podcast episode about empowering care teams to learn more.

Personalizing the Patient Experience

You’ve been experiencing some discomfort. It’s been a few weeks, so you get a referral and visit a specialist. What that doctor sees may not be a complete picture of your health, however. If all of the information about not just your illness, but your wellness, lives inside your electronic health record (EHR), your caregivers can have a much fuller picture of your needs. At the same time, clinicians can use your EHR to communicate with you in ways that work for you—like via text message—to remind you of an appointment, or to drink water, or to come in to take an A1C test because your bloodwork shows you may be at risk for diabetes, for example.

“It’s really a cultural shift and mind shift to think about, how do I offer medicine at a personal level using what I know about the consumer, all of the data I have inside my EHR,” says Andrea McGonigle, Managing Director for Microsoft’s US health and life sciences team.

That is just the start of what we cover in the third of the six episodes in the debut season of NextGen Health. Throughout the full series, we discuss genomic breakthroughs that can offer targeted, more effective cancer treatments, show how artificial intelligence in health providers’ back offices can reduce costs and increase efficiency—while continuing to put the patient first. And while these transformations are happening across the entire spectrum of healthcare organizations, learn what Microsoft, and our partners, are doing to ensure that patients’ and caregivers’ data remains secure and compliant.

This is the future of healthcare.

You can learn more about each episode on the NextGen Health website or download and listen to NextGen Health on Apple, Google or Spotify.

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Empowering clinicians with mobile health data: right info, right place, right time

Improving patient outcomes and reducing healthcare costs depends on healthcare providers such as doctors, nurses, and specialized clinician ability to access a wide range of data at the point of patient care in the form of health records, lab results, and protocols. Tactuum, a Microsoft partner, provides the Quris solution that empowers clinicians with access to the right information, the right place, at the right time, enabling them to do their jobs efficiently and with less room for error.

The Azure platform offers a wealth of services for partners to enhance, extend, and build industry solutions. Here we describe how one Microsoft partner uses Azure to solve a unique problem.

Information fragmentation results in poor quality of care

A patient is brought into the emergency department with a deep cut to the leg. The wound is several days old and the patient is exhibiting symptoms of illness, perhaps infection. As a clinician, you know the hospital has a clear protocol for wound management and possible infections. Do you know where to find this information quickly? Is it on a wiki, internal website, or on paper in a binder? Lastly, is it current? Finding the right information in these conditions can be time-consuming and stressful. Or worse, it could be inaccurate and out of date.

In many healthcare provider organizations today, information is fragmented between electronic health records (EHR), on-line third-party sites, intranet sites, and on paper. Additionally, some information may be on secured sites, not visible to everyone and data disappears if it’s unavailable offline. This situation can be detrimental to the quality of patient care because critical data is available too late or not at all. Even with internet access, the wrong information may come from a search engine. So aside from the logistical challenges of making data available, it’s important to ensure that only the right information is found. So, the enduring challenge is getting the right information to the right person, in the right place, and at the right time.

The searchability cost of file systems

Even a facility with modern IT resources such as computers, tablets, or specialized instruments presents obstacles in the search for information. Users must navigate through the network and tunnel into folders, backtracking if they are wrong. Some folders may not be available to everyone or require asking for permission when time is of the essence. Websites and apps may also require authorization. So what happens if a device is offline? Computer systems present their own hurdles to quick access.


The challenge has become a problem-to-solve for one Microsoft partner, Tactuum, who created the Quris Clinical Companion. Working with some leading hospitals, including the University of Washington and the University of Michigan, they are solving the problem for healthcare. From the Tactuum website comes this description:

“Our flagship product allows organizations to push out to staff, in real-time, the latest guidelines, protocols, algorithms, calculators and clinical handbooks. Put your existing clinical resources into clinicians’ hands right now and know that they’re using the latest and most up-to-date information.”

Tactuum has a few notable goals:

  • Right information: The content is vetted, with security safeguards. The content is easy to use, and data consumption insights are provided.
  • Right place: Available where you need it through mobile devices, workstations, and EHR systems.
  • Right time: Available on and offline. When online, real-time updates become possible.
  • Right cost: Minimal IT involvement, low maintenance, and no paper or printing required.

The graphic below illustrates the components and workflow of the system.

Infographic for Clinical Kowledge Manager (CKM)


  • Improve quality of care due to more effective decision-making (quicker and more reliable).
  • Save money on printing requirements, easier maintenance, and streamlined distribution.
  • Innovation through powerful data and analytics.

The solution supports improving patient outcomes with critical information at the point of patient care, saving both time and money. Here’s one example, according to a registered nurse and Quris user at Airlift Northwest in Seattle:

“Time savings has been immeasurable. In the past it was required to have a workgroup of staff, educators, and medical directors to review and update the hardcopy “Bluebook.” This was very expensive and required significant time. Now, a smaller group reviews policies and resources, does updates, and uploads it directly to the organization’s server for immediate use.”

Azure services

The Microsoft Azure worldwide presence and extensive compliance portfolio provide the backbone of the Quris solution, including the following key services:

  • Web Apps: Supports Windows and Linux
  • Blob Storage: Multiple blob types, hot, cool, and archive tiers
  • Azure Active Directory: Identity services that work with your on-premises, cloud, or hybrid environment
  • Azure SQL Database: Unmatched scale and high availability for compute and storage
  • Xamarin: Connects apps to enterprise systems, in the cloud or on premises

Next steps

To see more about Azure in the healthcare industry see Azure for health.

Go to the Azure Marketplace listing for Quris and select Contact me.

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Measles and mumps? Data sharing on the cloud to improve public health

Woman working in a hospitalWoman working in a hospital

As once forgotten diseases start to reappear, state and local government agencies are looking to find new ways to ensure positive health outcomes for their citizens. I had a conversation with Steve and Claire Murchie at Envision Technology Partners. Their WebIZ immunization registry system is leveraging new technologies to help state and local government combat the recent outbreaks of diseases like mumps, measles, and other preventable illnesses.

Steve and Claire, recent measles outbreaks have reignited focus on the importance of immunizations so I’m hoping you can provide an update regarding what state and local governments are doing to ensure proper tracking of children’s vaccinations.

Yes, measles is a big issue – already in early April 2019 we have exceeded the number of cases nationwide for all of 2018. But it’s also mumps, pertussis and even hepatitis A, which has killed more than 40 people in one state alone. These are all vaccine-preventable diseases, which points the cause to less vaccine acceptance. The reasons for that are complex, but information is the best tool to combat vaccine hesitancy, and immunization information systems (IIS) are the primary tool used to track, measure and understand vaccination patterns at a public health level.

I understand health agencies in Delaware and Philadelphia are embarking on immunization data sharing that has the potential to improve immunization compliance and in turn diseases outbreak outcomes. Please tell us about that.

Due to various laws in the US, we don’t have a national registry of immunizations, so responsibility is passed to the state or local jurisdictions to run their own IIS. Until recently, there hasn’t been a clear legal and technology mechanism to facilitate sharing of data between two independent jurisdictions. For the past several years, though, there has been a project sponsored by the Office of the National Coordinator in the Department of Health and Human Services to kickstart this sharing of immunization data, allowing states to maintain a more comprehensive view of patient protection within their populations. ONC’s contribution has included both standardization of the data use agreements between jurisdictions, and they have also stood up a messaging hub which supports the actual data integration.

While the pilot has been open to all public health jurisdictions, the first to complete a production connection were the State of Delaware and the City of Philadelphia. Both happen to use our IIS platform – WebIZ – but we’re actively trying to include some other neighboring jurisdictions as well. The project is described in this March 2019 issue of AIRA’s (American Immunization Registry Association) SnapShots newsletter.

So, Envision’s WebIZ solution is the backbone of this data sharing success. Please tell us more about that solution and where it’s implemented.

WebIZ is used in twenty state, local and territorial jurisdictions overseen by the Centers for Disease Control. We’re a standardized, commercial-off-the-shelf solution that is highly configurable but managed as a single code base. As a result, we can deliver software quickly and reliably without a lot of site-specific customization. And our customers benefit by receiving all enhancements which are paid for by any other customer, which leverages their investment dollars. Like many state and local government agencies, public health has faced years of diminished budgets, so that is a real benefit to them.

Some of the WebIZ implementations are on the Azure Government Cloud. Why are governments choosing that option, and what are the benefits?

State IT budgets are also under pressure, so there is both a movement away from home-grown IIS applications to vendor-supplied solutions, as well as increased support for cloud-based solutions. We were an early adopter of the Azure Government Cloud and have transitioned most of our larger sites over to it. We include hosting as a requirement, and it actually makes our job a lot easier. IIS tend to have a lot of moving parts – web interface, messaging interface, flat file and vital records imports – so it helps if we can have unfettered access to help diagnose problems that may arise. Managing the application infrastructure – which is mostly IaaS today, but starting to take on more PaaS flavors – also means that we have more control over operational upgrades for performance, scalability and security.

Please tell us about innovations in the immunization registry market. With AI being the center of so much attention, is there anything you’re doing to utilize AI to improve immunization registration?

If there is any silver lining to the recent outbreaks, it’s that public health agencies are spending more time slicing and dicing their data in order to learn more about their populations. We’ve been receiving many requests for assistance creating data extracts, and we’ve been adding functionality to make it easier for customers to analyze their own data, but there is a lot of variability in the technical resources available to immunization programs. So, we’ve been looking at tools like Power BI to increase the options available to less-technical users, while expanding the power of more advanced analytics through machine learning and related features. Some of the machine learning features have potential in our ongoing challenges with patient-matching, which plagues most large-population, multi-contributor databases.

Get more information about WebIZ. You can also request a free trial of Microsoft Azure Government and learn more about Microsoft’s Health and Human Services Solutions.

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UCLA Health adopts Microsoft Azure to accelerate medical research and improve patient care

Cloud computing will help enable the delivery of more personalized health care for UCLA patients

LOS ANGELES and REDMOND, Wash. — May 30, 2019 — UCLA Health is deploying Microsoft cloud computing services to enable UCLA Health and the David Geffen School of Medicine to synthesize vast amounts of clinical and research data to speed medical discoveries and improve patient care.

Microsoft Azure, a cloud computing service, will provide UCLA Health with a standard platform through which disparate clinical information and research tools can be secured and managed by the health system. The solution will provide UCLA Health with advanced computing tools to more rapidly interpret and mobilize insights from such data and to enhance collaboration among researchers.

“Our data capabilities with Microsoft Azure will bring more medical discoveries and effective therapies to patients faster,” said Michael Pfeffer, M.D., assistant vice chancellor and chief information officer for UCLA Health Sciences. “The integration of information from structured data, like lab results and medication information, with unstructured data, like documentation, genomics and medical images, creates an incredibly powerful big-data learning platform for discovery.”

UCLA scientists will use the cloud computing tools to more efficiently analyze a variety of data sources. The artificial intelligence (AI) embedded in the tools enables speedy processing of data to glean insights for use by physicians and researchers. Machine learning enables software to recognize and act on important data patterns without the need for human instruction, producing discoveries as never before.

“Analyzing large data sets to make scientific discoveries is a race against time,” said Mohammed Mahbouba, M.D., chief data officer for UCLA Health Sciences. “Using machine learning to analyze a combination of clinical and genomics data can provide critical insights, but doing so with a traditional computing infrastructure can require significant processing time. Azure enables us to quickly deploy and scale high-performance computing environments that can reduce the required processing time sometimes from months to days to make discoveries.”

UCLA Health’s move to cloud computing is intended to advance the health system’s delivery of precision health, or the use of data and a patient’s individual circumstances, to tailor a more effective treatment. In 2017, UCLA Health and the David Geffen School of Medicine launched the UCLA Institute for Precision Health, led by Daniel Geschwind, M.D., Ph.D., to bring together faculty across multiple disciplines to make large-scale genetic and genomic research actionable for patient care. The David Geffen School of Medicine also partnered with the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering to establish a department of computational medicine, chaired by Eleazar Eskin, Ph.D., to leverage scholarship in data sciences to discover new approaches to analyzing health data.

“We are committed to creating better patient outcomes by providing UCLA Health with Microsoft Azure cloud and AI solutions to improve treatments and lives,” said Peter Lee, corporate vice president, Microsoft Healthcare. “By connecting health data and systems in the cloud in an interoperable way, we’re excited we can help advance health care data for more efficient and personalized care.”

The Azure platform employs industry-leading technology to help protect and secure sensitive data, allowing UCLA Health to continue to ensure compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. Patient data in UCLA Health’s platform will not be shared with Microsoft as part of this agreement.

“Another advantage of cloud computing is the way it enables UCLA researchers to more efficiently and securely work with their peers,” said Paul Boutros, Ph.D., director of Cancer Data Science at UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Cloud computing will allow researchers from different fields and institutions to collaborate, joining data sets and software from different formats that could not previously be integrated in a simple way,” Boutros said. “We’re bringing together new communities of experts — including computer scientists, engineers, material scientists and others — to solve the biggest health care questions. This platform allows us to provide our research collaborators with secure access to important data in one place, without moving sensitive, private health information.”

The platform’s capabilities will also enable UCLA Health to use predictive analytics, or the analysis of historical data to model and assess what might happen in the future, to aid in disease prevention.

More about UCLA Health’s efforts in precision health can be found at

About UCLA Health

UCLA Health is among the world’s most comprehensive academic health systems, with a mission to provide state-of-the-art patient care, train top medical professionals and support pioneering research and discovery. UCLA Health includes four hospitals on two campuses — Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical CenterUCLA Medical Center, Santa MonicaUCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, and the Stewart and Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA — as well as the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. UCLA Health also offers an array of primary and specialty services at more than 170 clinics throughout Southern California. UCLA Health hospitals in Westwood and Santa Monica ranked No. 1 in Los Angeles and No. 7 nationally in the 2018-19 U.S. News & World Report assessment.

About Microsoft

Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT” @microsoft) enables digital transformation for the era of an intelligent cloud and an intelligent edge. Its mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

For more information, press only:

Microsoft Media Relations, WE Communications for Microsoft, (425) 638-7777,

Ryan Hatoum, UCLA Health, (310) 267-8304,

Note to editors: For more information, news and perspectives from Microsoft, please visit the Microsoft News Center at Web links, telephone numbers and titles were correct at time of publication, but may have changed. For additional assistance, journalists and analysts may contact Microsoft’s Rapid Response Team or other appropriate contacts listed at

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Harnessing big data in pediatric research to reimagine healthcare

For many of us, life begins in the hospital—and so does our health data. Health organizations worldwide are amassing more information than ever before from millions of patients throughout their lifetimes. Wrangling massive volumes of health data—from smart devices, medical devices, electronic medical records and community health systems—is no small task, but cloud computing offers researchers a promising way to tap into this resource to achieve meaningful medical progress and improved patient outcomes. Microsoft for Healthcare aims to do just that: harness the power of data to reimagine healthcare, improve the health of the population, and, ultimately, help save lives.

YouTube Video

Zeroing in on clues

One of the most promising examples of this is in our collaboration with Seattle Children’s Research Institute. We are working together to find clues to a persistent and tragic medical mystery that hits close to home: Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Every year, more than 3,500 infants die of SIDS-related causes in the United States. One of these children was the son of John Kahan, my colleague and Microsoft’s chief data analytics officer. John has made it his mission for no parent to lose a child to SIDS, and with his data science team at Microsoft and our friends at Seattle Children’s, they are working toward that goal in earnest.

The team started with publicly available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on 26 million births and deaths, and along with other data sets, studied 90 columns of data about every child born in the U.S. over a six-year period. Through this data science effort done in the cloud on Microsoft Azure, they discovered several correlations that showed statistical increases in SIDS. They then brought those findings to Seattle Children’s Research Institute, one of the world leaders in pediatric genomics and brain research— and lucky for us, right in our backyard.

Since then, we’ve been working together to expand the effort and the science, creating a collaborative genomics database for Seattle Children’s and the top SIDS medical researchers worldwide, and a world-class team of Microsoft data scientists. Together, we recently published our first manuscript from this collaboration in the peer-reviewed medical journal, Pediatrics, in which we used advanced modelling techniques to analyze the relationship between maternal smoking during pregnancy and SIDS-related deaths. Going forward, the hope is to use sequenced whole genomes as an additional data set along with the CDC data and other information in Microsoft Azure, helping to identify SIDS risk factors and, ultimately, ways to help prevent SIDS.

Similarly, we’ve been able to assist pediatric cancer researchers. Working with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and our partner DNAnexus, we’ve been thrilled to be a part of the creation of the St. Jude Cloud—a cloud-based data-sharing and collaboration environment based on Microsoft Azure that contains an extensive public repository of pediatric cancer genomics data. St. Jude Cloud stores and shares thousands of cancer patient samples mapped against the human genome template, enabling researchers around the world to access and exchange data on a global basis. Researchers from more than 450 institutions across 16 countries now have immediate access to data that previously could take weeks to download, as well as access to complex computational analysis pipelines. The availability of this data could lead to progress in eradicating childhood cancer.

Clues like these seed future research, turning mere hints into new medical and biological knowledge, diagnostics, or therapeutics. Like John Kahan, many of our data scientists have been touched personally by medical or health issues and are exceptionally motivated to help solve these puzzles.

Reimagining healthcare

Collaborations like those with Seattle Children’s and St. Jude are just the beginning. Our technology is in virtually every healthcare organization in the world, from a nurse-led clinic in Kenya to larger organizations like Kaiser Permanente in the United States and NHS Glasgow and Clyde in the United Kingdom, putting us in a unique position to build and expand solutions with cloud computing and AI.

For us, reimagining healthcare starts with finding well-defined and well-scoped problems, then bringing together the best minds from a diverse set of disciplines and people—computer science, AI and data science, bioscience and medical—to solve them.

By analyzing masses of data with trusted cloud computing, one health concern at a time, we have a chance to extract new knowledge that could make a positive difference—empowering healthcare teams, improving operational outcomes and care coordination, and personalizing care.

Join us in reimagining healthcare. To learn more about harnessing the power of health data with cloud computing, take a look at our new e-book A New Framework for Healthcare in a Digital World. For a deeper dive on Microsoft Genomics visit here.


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Health in your hands: how data and AI are empowering patients

Friendly robot looking at the camera

The Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden has a very fitting example of extra attention being paid to patients – a friendly robot is being used to significantly reduce the stress of children suffering from cancer.

The robot itself doesn’t add any medical procedures to the existing treatment, but its friendly demeanour and in-built screen with games designed to inform children of their treatment procedure ahead of time, has proven to be a great help in reducing the fear of these young patients. In addition, the robot also helps reduce the stress of parents, and saves healthcare experts both time and money, by reducing the amount of time and people required per treatment session.

Lisa Karin Bergström, practitioner, nursing manager and project lead states that “We can’t always see cancer coming, or stop it, but we can control the stress children feel, and help them feel happier and more in control.”

Healthcare in your hands
Putting patients first should provide them with newer tools to not only make their lives easier, but to also provide a more personalised level of care. Virtual hospitals provide a convenient, easy to use experience which allows patients to track their health and communicate with health professionals remotely, from the comfort of their own homes. This saves patients time, and travel, which is particularly beneficial for the elderly.

In Finland, Helsinki University Hospital’s Virtual Health Village is a prime example of bringing healthcare directly into the hands of its patients. The online cloud service, based on the Microsoft Azure and Dynamics 365, provides information and support including medical care for patients, and tools for healthcare professionals. Patients have access to virtual buildings dedicated to different life situations and symptoms, such as pain management, rehabilitation, mental health, and weight management.

Virpi Rauta, PhD, eMBA, Doctor in nephrology who is involved with the kidney-damage section of the Virtual Health Village states that “We have to get rid of old habits when we adopt these new tools. It’s multidisciplinary work – clinicians, IT workers, nurses and patients all worked together to help create our kidney app.”

Empowering patients and putting their own healthcare within their control, is key. The kidney disease app in the Virtual Health Hospital shares real patient experiences and how they are coping with their treatment, to help other patients feel that their disease is manageable. Patients are more likely to listen to people going through the same experiences, and this genuine relatability helps morale, while increasing the chances of them correctly following their treatment plan.

In Scotland, technology is bringing personalised care to patients suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) – a condition which affects 1.2 million people in the UK, and is the second most common cause of emergency hospital admissions. Without treatment, the symptoms (which include breathlessness, chest infections and a persistent cough) get worse, but a new trial brings an easier way to manage the illness to patients, from the comfort of their own homes.

Patients use wearable devices combined with Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform to remotely monitor their breathing. AI algorithms, based on machine learning, are then used to monitor results, and automatically detect and predict issues, so that healthcare experts can vary their treatment accordingly, based on their individual needs.

This not only saves patients from making regular trips to the hospital, it also means that if their condition gets worse, their healthcare providers will automatically be alerted, allowing timely treatment, and a better quality of life.

Chris Carlin, a Consultant Respiratory Physician involved in the trial, states that “It’s about delivering treatment earlier by using data. If we can empower patients to self-manage their condition, we can significantly reduce hospital admissions. That self-management might be helping them with their breathing, escalating their existing treatment, recommending new treatment or reaching out to the community respiratory team.”

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In another corner of the world, one of the oldest diseases known to mankind – leprosy – is being treated with AI. The Novartis Foundation and Microsoft are developing an AI-enabled digital health tool and a Leprosy Intelligent Image Atlas to help the early detection of leprosy.

Over 200,000 people are diagnosed with leprosy every year, with Brazil, India, and Indonesia accounting for about 80 percent of new cases. The disease is made more complicated by the fact that it can be difficult to diagnose, and if left untreated, can cause other disabilities and spread to others.

Microsoft and the Novartis Foundation are collaborating with local investigators from Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) in Brazil to develop a machine learning algorithm which examines anonymized images before automatically detecting if a patient has leprosy.

To save patients (who are often in remote rural areas) from travelling long distances to hospitals, they are able to instead visit local businesses and have their photos taken there, before the shots are examined by the AI programme. The imagery and AI code are planned to be made publicly accessible at a later stage to empower leprosy researchers to accelerate research excellence in this field, leading to better outcomes.

Dr. Ann Aerts, Head of Novartis Foundation states that “Bundling expertise from the health and tech sectors to pioneer innovative digital health solutions such as this one, can make it possible to reimagine the way we fight leprosy. Early detection and prompt treatment of patients remains the best way to interrupt leprosy transmission. Together with Microsoft we are pioneering an innovative digital tool to accelerate leprosy detection, to make this ancient disease history once and for all.”

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Video: How social workers in Australia are making families and medicine safer

When people need help from the Department of Health and Human Services in Victoria, Australia, they are often slogging through their toughest days.

Some are grappling with prescription drug abuse. Some are recovering from violence. Some are escaping homelessness.

“The department’s vision is to improve the health and wellbeing of all Victorians,” says Fiona Sparks, assistant director of strategy and design for DHHS. “We have many clients who, at times in their lives, really struggle. Our focus is shifting the trajectory of people’s lives.

“To do that, we need our workforce and our clients to have the very best technology – good tools, good systems – that are secure and that ensure information can be shared easily,” Sparks says.

DHHS executives are relying on Microsoft Azure and Dynamics 365 to fuel an array of new initiatives, including a program to address family violence in Victoria, the most densely populated state in Australia with more than 6 million residents.

That system tracks police responses to domestic assaults, instantly dispersing the information across the government ecosystem and reducing the time needed to get victims help, Sparks says.

“For anyone who’s experienced family violence, it can be traumatizing,” she says. “We want to make that experience much less stressful by ensuring we’ve got information shared across multiple services and that people don’t have to share their story over and over again.”

A pharmacist helps a customer in Victoria
A pharmacist helps a customer in Victoria.

To improve health care, DHHS has launched a program called SafeScript. When physicians and pharmacists dispense medications like opioids, they get real-time alerts if those patients are prescribed drugs by other doctors.

“These medicines are a huge problem in our society and in many countries around the world where people are becoming addicted after medical treatment,” says Steve Hodgkinson, chief information officer for DHHS.

“A doctor or pharmacist needs to know what else is happening with this person in terms of their consumption of these medications,” Hodgkinson says. “The focus of our department is to encourage people to live the life they have the potential to live.”

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With lessons learned from computers, a new platform could help boost production of lifesaving biological therapies

The power of the Station B platform lies in pulling all those pieces of the puzzle together in one integrated system, Phillips said. Both initial deployments will occur in labs that are overseen by health, safety, ethical and medical regulators.

“It marries Microsoft’s deep expertise in programming languages, modeling capabilities and machine learning with lab automation and the power of the cloud and intelligent edge — that combination of tools doesn’t exist anywhere in this industry today,” Phillips said.

To solve one key challenge, the platform uses Synthace’s lab automation system to allow users to run experiments from the cloud and precisely replicate each step in complicated scientific protocols.

Synthace’s Antha software allows the user to replace subjective instructions like “shake a test tube vigorously” with digital language that isn’t open to misinterpretation and that lab robots can execute. Building on top of Azure IoT, Antha is a high-level language for describing biological experiments that allows an array of lab machines made by different manufacturers to run them, much like printer drivers allow any make or model of printer to print PDF documents.

That ability to run experiments exactly the same way each time gives users confidence that the results they’re seeing are meaningful, and not just a fluke in the way the experiment happened to be set up that day.

Synthace’s system — which can handle experiments that simultaneously test dozens of different parameters or genetic constructs rather than one or two at a time — speeds up the research process exponentially. Combined with machine learning capabilities, it also gives customers the ability to pose and learn from much more sophisticated lines of inquiry.

“The near infinite power of biology can only be unlocked by bringing software abstraction and automation to biological R&D and manufacturing, and by enabling biologists to build atop their collective work. That is what the Antha platform does successfully,” said Tim Fell, Synthace chief executive officer.

Sarah-Jane Dunn stands in front a mural with her arms crossed
Sarah-Jane Dunn, scientist for Microsoft Research Cambridge, UK. Photo by Jonathan Banks.

’This could have huge reach’

The Station B platform will be tested first in the lab of Bonnie Bassler, chair of Princeton’s Department of Molecular Biology, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, who studies how bacteria wield outsized power by acting as collectives. The Princeton team includes Bassler’s longtime collaborator Ned Wingreen, a physicist and professor in Princeton’s Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics.

“Historically we’ve thought of bacteria as only having harmful behaviors, like infecting us and causing disease, but more recently scientists have discovered the microbiome, a rather magical bacterial community that lives in and on us and that keeps us alive,” Bassler said. “What my lab has always wondered about is how do bacteria manage to either kill us or keep us alive? They’re so tiny.”

Bassler discovered the widespread use of a phenomenon called quorum sensing in the bacterial world. It’s a form of molecular communication that bacteria use to determine when their numbers have reached a critical mass. When they reach the “quorum,” together they trigger behaviors that are only successful when bacteria act as a coordinated group — such as unleashing virulent diseases.

In a proof-of-concept pilot, the team will deploy the Station B platform to investigate how cholera bacteria use quorum sensing to form biofilms, thin layers of bacteria that grow on almost all surfaces. Bacteria living in biofilm communities can be 1000 times more resistant to antibiotics than non-biofilm bacteria.

Princeton researchers will use the Station B platform and Synthace’s lab automation tools to construct and test different versions of two proteins that are key to biofilm formation — which are also genetically programmed to light up. The light allows the scientists to see and measure how much of each protein is produced under many different conditions and in different regions of the biofilm.

Bassler compares the working microbiologists in her lab to master craftspeople, creating elegant and complicated genetic constructs to produce a desired result. But that artisanal process yields only a few prospects at a time and doesn’t allow the team to massively attack the problem.

The Station B platform will be able to build and test dozens of engineered proteins at once — in whatever combinations a researcher can dream up and type into the system for a liquid handling robot to produce. The platform will then help the scientists learn which of the protein constructs behave most like the natural proteins and yield an accurate picture of how biofilm cells organize, Bassler said.

The goal is to build on that basic understanding and find an Achilles heel that might weaken virulent biofilms or increase their sensitivity to antibiotics.

“The platform will allow us to ask more questions, get more results and do more experiments than a graduate student or postdoc, no matter how clever, can do today. So, it gets us to the winning genetic constructs faster,” Bassler said.

Equally important, the platform will also collect and help analyze data from every single lab experiment — including ones that fail, Bassler said. By necessity, scientists have to pursue their most fruitful lines of inquiry, but that can leave an untapped trove of information about why something didn’t succeed.

“If this extra information can help us discover the underlying patterns in what works and what doesn’t work and why, that would be a transformative leap for us,” she said.

The value of deploying the Station B platform in Bassler’s lab is that those researchers have already built an extensive inventory of genetic components, chemical mixtures and models in the years that they’ve been studying bacteria like cholera.

If the team can begin to uncover the rules and principles that govern those systems, Wingreen said, they may be able to program them in transferrable ways. That could potentially enable a doctor who studies cancer or an engineer working on low-carbon fuels to imagine a genetic construct that they’d love to test and get an exact blueprint for assembling it — without spending years at a lab bench.

“From my perspective, this could have a huge reach,” Wingreen said. “Just as the tech sector was democratized by software that lets you ask for what you want in a microchip design and have someone make it, we need that same revolution in biology.”

Top image: Breech Odu works in an Oxford Biomedica lab, where the Station B platform will be deployed to accelerate discovery and manufacturing of gene and cell therapies. Photo by Jonathan Banks.


Jennifer Langston writes about Microsoft research and innovation. Follow her on Twitter.

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Progress report on digital transformation in healthcare

Two scientists using digital tablet in laboratory

It’s been an incredible year so far for the health industry. We’ve seen the dream and the opportunity of digital transformation and AI start to really take shape in the marketplace.

We saw many examples of this last month at HIMSS 2019, many of our partners and other cloud providers are offering commoditized access to complex healthcare algorithms and models to improve clinical and business outcomes.


These examples show how cloud computing and AI can deliver on the promise of digital transformation. But for health organizations to realize that potential, they have to trust the technology—and their technology partner.

Microsoft has always taken the lead on providing cloud platforms and services that help health organizations protect their data and meet their rigorous security and compliance requirements. Recently, we announced the HIPAA  eligibility and HITRUST certifications of Microsoft Cognitive Services and Office 365.

It’s crucial for health organizations to feel utterly confident not only in their technology partner’s ability to help them safeguard their data and infrastructure, and comply with industry standards, but also in their partner’s commitment to help them digitally transform their way—whatever their needs or objectives are. Our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. So whether you’re a health provider, pharmaceutical company, or retailer entering healthcare, your mission is our mission. Our business model is rooted in delivering success rather than disruption for our customers.


Another point of vital importance as we support the movement of healthcare as an industry—and healthcare data specifically—to the cloud is ensuring that we avoid the sins of the past, specifically data silos.

To that end, we jointly announced with other leading cloud providers that we’re committed to healthcare data interoperability among cloud platforms and supporting common data standards like Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR). And I was particularly thrilled to see the excitement in the health industry in reaction to our launch last last month with Azure API for FHIR and our commitment to develop open source FHIR servers. I hope you’ll join the huge movement behind health interoperability fueled by FHIR and encourage your technologists to start actively using the open-source project to bring diverse data sets together—and to build systems that learn from those data sets.

As my colleague, Doug Seven, recently wrote, interoperability helps you bring together data from disparate sources, apply AI to it to gain insights, and then enrich care team and patient tools with those insights to help you achieve your mission. That’s a crucial step in the digital transformation of health.


Another crucial step is supporting health teamwork. With the changing nature of care delivery, health services increasingly require coordination across multiple care settings and health professionals. So we launched a new set of capabilities to our Teams platform that provides workflows for first-line clinical workers such as doctors and nurses that they can use to access patient information and coordinate care in real time.

The end game

Why does all of this matter? To answer that question, I always come back to the quadruple aim, which all of us in the health industry strive for: enhancing both patient and caregivers’ experiences, improving the health of populations, and lowering the costs of healthcare.

Empowering care teams and patients with data insights and tools that help them coordinate care—and that they and your health organization can trust—will help bring about the desired outcomes of the quadruple aim. Not only will this systemic change improve clinical and business outcomes, but also, at an individual level, enhance the day-to-day and digital experiences of clinical workers and patients alike—creating better experiences, better insights, and better care across the delivery system.

Learn more about real-world use cases for AI in the e-book: “Breaking down AI: 10 real applications in healthcare.”