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Microsoft: Better software can prevent medical mishaps

Company teams with Britain's health system to come up with a common interface for reducing the thousands of hospital mix-ups that occur annually.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read
Inside a business, software with a good user interface can improve productivity. Inside a hospital, it can save lives.

That's the premise behind a new collaboration between Microsoft and Britain's National Health System that seeks to develop a common design for clinical software. Microsoft isn't trying to prescribe the entire software design, but is proposing some commonality in terms of where on a screen medications are listed and what types of information about the drug are listed.

"It is kind of like when you get into a car," said Tim Smokoff, general manager of Microsoft's health care unit. "Every dashboard looks different, but they are all kind of the same."

By standardizing on a common way to display medical data, Microsoft hopes the industry can make a dent in the 600,000 errors that take place in U.S. hospitals each year, many of them from medication mix-ups.

A 2005 study showed that the most high-tech hospitals in the country have mortality rates 7 percent below those of other hospitals. But separate research, published the same year, found that high rates of drug errors can still occur in computerized hospitals.

The user interface project is part of a broader health care initiative at Microsoft, which now has 600 people in the area, up from 200 workers just two years ago. The company touts its $1 billion in health care revenue, though the bulk of that is from sales of Windows, Office and Windows Server.

In addition to work on tools for hospitals, insurers and drug companies, Microsoft is also focused on tools for consumers.

There, efforts center on the notion of a personal health record. The idea is that there would be an open standard that would allow all kinds of information--medical device data, prescription information and other patient records--to be maintained in one electronic file.

Central to the vision, Smokoff said, is the idea that the information would be owned by the individual. "Look for some announcements within the next couple months on how we take that to market," he said.

Growing segment

Microsoft is not alone in eyeing health care as a booming opportunity.

Part of the attraction, says IDC analyst Marc Holland, is that the technology spending in health care has a growth rate 15 percent to 20 percent faster than other traditional industry segments, such as manufacturing or financial services. "It's one of the fastest-growing vertical segments that we track," Holland said.

Google is focused on many of the same areas as Microsoft, and Intel also has efforts under way that parallel some of Microsoft's notions. Smokoff said Microsoft supports its longtime chip partner's efforts, but the two are not working together.

Microsoft has also been making acquisitions in the health care arena. In February, the company bought Medstory, a health-based search company with tools that were recently integrated into the search feature on MSN's health and fitness page. On Google, Smokoff said, the first result for earache is a rock band by that name. With Medstory's tool, users get a list of relevant results in six categories, including medications, related diseases and possible tests and procedures.

Last year Microsoft acquired patient database company Azyxxi. And Smokoff said to expect more purchases from Microsoft.

"Yes, without a doubt."

Holland said although Microsoft has long been a player in health care because of the reach of its underlying operating system, the company is becoming far more serious about the industry.

"They have made a number of moves in just the last couple of months to strengthen their product story," he said.

Holland said the moves so far are "necessary, but not sufficient" for the company. He noted that Microsoft has been rumored to be interested in buying one of the major health care software providers.

"There has been talk about their name in the context of a major acquisition of a clinical software maker for maybe the last two year."

As for the user interface that Microsoft developed, the software maker says it is available for free to other software makers.

Holland said that although the notion is a good one, it may work better in an environment like Britain, where the government is the single payer for most health care, as compared to the U.S. where individual hospital chains make their own purchasing decisions.

"I have some reservations whether all of the competitive vendors in the U.S. are likely to jump on board," Holland said. "They think the user interface is a competitive attribute."

Still, he thinks at least some elements of Microsoft's approach may be adopted.

Microsoft also faces challenges when it comes to health care records that are both personal and electronic, he said. In addition to regulatory and individual privacy concerns, there is a big question as to who will pay for the kind of data that Microsoft envisions.

The company has a vision that would allow people with chronic conditions to have health data sent to their care providers, paving the way for fewer doctor visits and earlier warning signs of potential problems. "It has the potential to fundamentally change the health care system, particularly for people who are chronically ill," Holland said.

But if a doctor gets less money from office visits and still has the responsibility for monitoring data, he or she needs to be compensated, Holland said.

"Reimbursement is the linchpin," he added.