Microsoft Takes Care of Business

A new release of its cloud offering for the healthcare industry

Microsoft first announced its move into healthcare at its Build 2020 conference and launched its Cloud for Healthcare in October 2020. Half a year later, in April 2021, Microsoft added more capabilities to its offering in a new release and presented these at a briefing in May.

Better-connected patient journeys

Microsoft singled out healthcare as one of its eight industry-specific cloud offerings to “deliver better experiences, better insights, and better care”. It said that the road map for Cloud for Healthcare “is at the core made to work together”. Aimed at better connecting the patient journey, the platform’s focus is on integration, and is underpinned by security, privacy and regulatory compliance.

Cloud for Healthcare combines the company’s own capabilities — including Microsoft 365, Microsoft Dynamics, Microsoft Power Platform and Microsoft Azure — on a common data model, with healthcare-specific expertise from other firms. They include the platform’s target audience of healthcare providers, payers, biopharmaceutical companies and medical technology companies. Cloud for Healthcare’s built-in connectors and converters allow customers to securely bring their organizational data into Microsoft Azure, to ingest, enrich and convert data from systems that support international interoperability standards, such as Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) for data exchange, and Digital Imaging and Communications (DICOM) for image exchanges.

The platform is highly adaptable and allows customers to take advantage of its healthcare-specific capabilities such as bots, patient portals, apps and artificial intelligence models. Microsoft points out that although many features in its core platforms Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Dynamics 365 can be used for healthcare, its Cloud for Healthcare allows customers to be more efficient and cost-effective.

Microsoft’s Cloud for Healthcare at a glance

In a nutshell, the platform provides a set of nine capabilities that allow improvements in three categories:

  • Improve patient engagement with a secure flow of patient-related data along a patient’s journey. Capabilities involved include personalized care, patient insights and virtual health.
  • Empower collaboration between health teams by simplifying the management of complex workflows in a secure environment. This draws on care team collaboration, care coordination and continuous patient monitoring capabilities.
  • Improve clinical and operational insights by running analytics on data from diverse sources to predict risk and improve quality of care as well as operational efficiencies. It involves clinical analytics, operational analytics and interoperability capabilities.

All capabilities offer several features, which will be continuously upgraded by Microsoft and the ecosystem, increasing the number of available solutions for the healthcare platform. The full Cloud for Healthcare service is priced in the US at $95 dollars per month, but although this covers many scenarios, it doesn’t include some Azure features that are based on usage, which could result in additional incremental costs. Customers can also subscribe to selected features without buying the entire offering.

What’s new in the April release?

The April 2021 release of Microsoft’s Cloud for Healthcare includes new features in virtual health and care coordination capabilities, reflecting the adoption of virtual consultations during the pandemic.

New features in the virtual health space include a virtual clinic experience, which is a dashboard giving caregivers a holistic, complete view of patient information during visits, as well as the ability to book and join appointments through a provider’s patient portal. It also includes a Microsoft Teams electronic health record (EHR) connector to Epic’s EHR software, so that providers and patients can schedule and launch virtual visits from within an Epic provider or patient portal. Epic is one of the leading EHR software suppliers in the US, so this is a good early move from Microsoft, although support for other EHR systems will follow soon. In addition, a new Azure service was released, called Azure Health Bot.

As part of its care coordination category, Microsoft added care collaboration features designed to improve patient care and develop new care plans with wellness goals. They also include a more robust updated patient timeline, which helps providers to view clinical activities and events in order, to understand what has already taken place and determine how best to assist the patient.

Bolstering its artificial intelligence skills with Nuance

Microsoft briefly mentioned its acquisition of Nuance Communications, a leading provider of artificial intelligence supported by speech recognition solutions. Announced on 12 April 2021, the deal will be closed by the end of the year. With more than 60% of Nuance’s $1.48 billion revenue in 2020 generated by its healthcare business, the acquisition will expand Microsoft’s cloud capabilities in the healthcare sector.

This move was preceded by a partnership agreement between the two companies in 2019, when Nuance integrated with Microsoft Teams to support virtual consultations. Next to providing further enhancements to the artificial intelligence layer of healthcare for customers, Nuance’s expertise will give accurate documentation, financial integrity and reduce the administrative burden.

The acquisition helps the integrated advantages that Nuance brings to Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365 and Power Platform, and further reinforces Microsoft’s powerful ecosystem of third-party providers, opening them up to the healthcare sector. It’s a win–win result that could propel Microsoft into pole position against the likes of Salesforce and ServiceNow.

Microsoft’s future in the healthcare industry

Microsoft wants to keep evolving its healthcare offering by adding new features for its nine capabilities with semi-annual releases. It expects some areas to receive features faster than others, but is committed to refining its offerings for all the categories it provides. The company aims to roll out Cloud for Healthcare globally, a task that will involve language localization and ensuring it can meet the data residency requirements of regulators in targeted countries.

Microsoft’s further advances in the healthcare sector are good news for the ecosystem. The company is making the right noise by streamlining workflows and data flows, as well as integrating with major EHR providers like Epic and subscribing to the latest security and data privacy protocols and regulations. This will support the industry’s move to improve patient outcomes.

Healthcare is heating up as a major competitive battlefront for cloud platform and solution providers. Microsoft joins the likes of Amazon, Google, IBM, Salesforce and ServiceNow with its healthcare cloud offerings and healthcare-related solutions. As providers of cloud-based solutions, they will all have to tackle challenges of data ownership and the right to access data, especially when doing business outside the US.