Greg Moore, MD, PhD | December 28, 2020
Over the last eight months, the realities of the coronavirus pandemic have transformed every business and profession, forcing companies and organizations to adapt to social distancing and levels of economic disruption the world hasn’t seen in almost a century. But it’s safe to say that no industry has experienced a greater impact than healthcare. The urgent need to treat waves of sick and dying COVID-19 patients has, at times, taxed hospitals nearly to the breaking point. To free up capacity and reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, many hospitals and clinics canceled non-emergency care and people have delayed routine visits and put off seeing their doctor for anything but the most serious reasons.
As wrenching and difficult as this has all been, health care systems around the world have shown remarkable resilience and adaptability. One aspect of this has been the heroic efforts of frontline care providers who have done whatever is necessary to meet the needs of their patients, often under the most difficult circumstances. Equally important has been the dramatic acceleration in the use of advanced digital technologies and solutions. In the United States, for example, telehealth consultations jumped from about .2 percent of patient-clinician interactions before the pandemic to 14 percent in April.
I believe this is just the start. As we move forward, digital technologies including telehealth, AI, and cloud computing will provide the foundation for new approaches to prevention, treatment, and care that offer incredible opportunities to make healthcare more effective, more affordable, and more equitable.
Today, as I look at what is happening across the healthcare industry, I see five key trends that will drive the future of healthcare. As an engineer and physician, I share these in the spirit of us all being mindful of these trends as we work together to make the world a healthier place.
Rapid rise of virtual care and operations
The rapid emergence of virtual care through telehealth and remote monitoring over the past few months has done more than just make it more convenient for patients to connect with their doctors—it has empowered them to take charge of their health in entirely new ways. Virtual care has the capacity to personalize, accelerate, and augment treatment and prevention, saving time and money, and improving outcomes. The ability to engage patients without requiring an in-person visit to a clinic will help ensure that they receive the right level of care and enable healthcare facilities to better manage the flow of patients into clinics and emergency rooms. We’ve seen first hand at St. Luke’s University Health Network the importance of providing a central place to schedule, manage, and conduct virtual visits with patients, and launch directly from within Epic and other EHR systems.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Providence Health System and Microsoft have worked together to harness virtual care by using an AI-enabled health bot to screen patients, determining who needs critical care in a hospital setting and who can be better treated at home. Public health organizations and health systems have adopted this scenario rapidly, and now in 25 countries around the world, organizations are using the Microsoft Healthcare Bot service to screen patients, with more than 650 million messages served to 66 million people. Because virtual care will play such a major role in the future of the healthcare delivery, Microsoft is focused on working closely with healthcare organizations to develop digital health strategies that will keep data secure and facilitate the seamless deployment of network tools. Collaboration and partnership with technology companies, community health organizations, retail pharmacies, and insurers will be critical to widespread adoption.
Historic migration to the cloud
To respond to the coronavirus crisis and prepare to tackle the many healthcare challenges that we will face in the years ahead, the ability to collect and access patient health data in a secure, timely, and streamlined way will be critical. One key to achieving this is cloud-based data storage and data liquidity. Historically, healthcare organizations have been reluctant to move data offsite due to security, trust, and privacy concerns. Driven by regulatory changes focused on data interoperability and access, the economic efficiencies of hosting massive and growing medical data in the cloud, and the need for enterprise grade security and privacy, we’re seeing a one-time, historic shift of health data from on-premises computing to the cloud. Organizations including UPMC, Humana, and the University of Michigan are using Azure API for FHIR, along with data from providers, payors, public health agencies, and biomedical researchers to securely bring the information needed to deliver improved outcomes to patients.
With today’s tools and technologies, healthcare systems have been able to execute a complete cloud migration in a matter of weeks as part of their response to the COVID-19. Northwell Health, MVP Health Care and the aforementioned St. Luke’s are among those using Microsoft’s Cloud for Healthcare as a trusted environment to build innovative health solutions that will open the door to better experiences and outcomes for patients and their providers.
Scientific clarity that precision health is the future
It’s been clear for some time that precision medicine based on individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle holds huge potential for better health outcomes. As platforms for precision medicine and real-world evidence mature, we are already seeing exciting opportunities to improve treatment and prevention as we personalize patient care and transform how we diagnose infectious disease, cancer, and autoimmune disorders. But to realize these opportunities, precision health must take advantage of the convergence point of the cloud, high performance computing, and machine learning.
The response to the pandemic has provided a look into the future of precision health in the form of projects such as ImmuneCode, a partnership between Adaptive Biotech and Microsoft that is using machine learning to better understand the immune system’s reaction to the virus, and then share that data with researchers and those involved in drug and vaccine development. Working hand in hand with Adaptive, we’ve seen incredible process in just a few short months, giving a glimpse into the future of the speed of innovation that we’ll see in the coming years.
Widespread application of AI/ML
AI and machine learning offer incredible promise as tools to enhance the ability of clinicians to prevent, detect, diagnose, and treat disease. Intelligent systems are already helping doctors analyze patient information and determine the most appropriate care. Here at Microsoft, we are seeing our customers and partners apply the power of AI and machine learning, from chatbots to natural language processing to immunomics to genomics. Text Analytics for Health, a feature of Microsoft Azure Text Analytics, is an AI service currently in preview that enables and simplifies the process of extracting insights from unstructured medical data. Trained on a diverse range of medical data—covering various formats of clinical notes, clinical trial protocols, and more—this health feature is capable of processing a broad range of data types and tasks, without the need for time-intensive, manual development of custom models.
Another example of the potential of AI to improve human health is how Harris County Public Health in Texas is embarking on an innovative research project that uses AI to detect highly infectious disease in mosquitoes before they are transmitted to humans. Researchers believe that sensing the presence of deadly pathogens in the environment before an outbreak occurs could be an important key to preventing future epidemics.
Central to the future of high-quality personalized healthcare is an approach that engages people in their own health by placing them at the center of prevention and treatment. The rapid acceleration in the adoption of connected digital technologies across the healthcare industry in response to COVID-19 has put us in much better position to make this idea a reality. Telehealth, smart devices, and remote sensing and monitoring will give people the ability to receive the care they need when and where it is most effective while supporting their efforts at continuous self-care. In the future, rather than focusing on providing sick patients with treatment plans, we will see the emergence of a much more holistic approach that spans prevention and treatment based on deep knowledge of a patient’s health and lifestyle, combined with the insights from the latest research, and the ability to stay engaged with a patient outside the doctor’s office through telehealth and remote monitoring.
Telehealth and remote monitoring have long been talked about in the delivery of healthcare, and while some areas of health have created targeted use cases in the last few years, the availability of scalable telehealth platforms that can span multiple devices and schemas has been a barrier. Yet in a matter of months, COVID-19 has accelerated the discussion. We have an urgent need for care teams to find secure and scalable ways to deliver remote monitoring platforms and to extend their services to patients in the home environment. That’s why we’re excited to bring the Microsoft Azure IoT Connector for FHIR to the market, and we’re already seeing promising uptake from customers and partners like Humana, Centene, and Sensoria.
It’s been clear for a while now that digital technology will play a central role in the future of healthcare. The response to COVID-19 has dramatically accelerated the speed at which we are moving forward toward that future. Among the many lessons of the past eight months is that information systems that store digital health data in the cloud are the foundation for a healthier future. At Microsoft, we look forward to working in partnership with healthcare organizations, life sciences companies, and technology providers to create and deploy a new generation of healthcare innovations that will make healthcare more affordable, more effective, and more accessible for everyone.