Israeli team the force behind Microsoft virtual health assistant

Tech giant’s bot aims to help users become better informed about their condition; Israel office now working on matching patients to clinical trials

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

An illustrative image of a medical robot (PhonlamaiPhoto; iStock by Getty Images)
An illustrative image of a medical robot (PhonlamaiPhoto; iStock by Getty Images)

A virtual medical assistant launched by Microsoft last year and used by healthcare providers and labs in the US was developed by the tech giant’s team in Israel.

The Microsoft Healthcare bot, powered by artificial intelligence, aims to provide healthcare organizations with virtual health assistants to offer better service and enable patients to go to the doctor — if needed — armed with more information about their condition and where to seek help.

The chatbot is an “intelligent, virtual health assistant,” said Hadas Bitran, who heads the 20-person Microsoft Healthcare team in Israel and was the force behind getting the project off the ground.

The bot “does not aim to replace the doctor,” or nurses, she said. “It aims to allow patients to get more information about what they should be doing, what is the next step. I have this symptom, what should I do, how urgent is it?”

The Microsoft healthcare bot was developed by its Israel’s R&D team. (Courtesy)

Better informed patients reduce the burden on doctors and nurses who can then spend more time dealing with more critical cases, she explained.

In the US, Premera Blue Cross, a not-for-profit health insurance firm, is using the bot to answer patients’ questions, thus cutting back on call-center services. Aurora Health Care, a US healthcare provider with 15 hospitals, more than 150 clinics and 70 pharmacies, is using the bot to help patients make sense of their symptoms and conditions and guide them in finding the nearest care centers when needed. Quest Diagnostics, a US clinical lab, uses the bot to answer lab-test related questions, locate nearby test agents and connect patients with the appropriate live agents when necessary.

The technology was initially tested with private customers for 1.5 years and is now available to a wider public through Microsoft’s Azure cloud service, with over 2,000 customers globally using the service.

“It is still a work in progress,” said Bitran, a graduate from the IDF’s elite intelligence Unit 8200, who has worked for Microsoft in Israel for the past 10 years and has headed the local healthcare team for the past four.

Hadas Bitran, the head of Microsoft’s healthcare team in Israel (Courtesy)

Bitran’s team is part of the US tech giant’s operations in Herzliya. Microsoft employs an estimated 1,500 people in Israel working on projects ranging from cybersecurity to AI technologies and big data and healthcare at its premises in Herzliya, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Nazareth.

The firm’s Israel R&D operations are one of the tech giant’s leading centers in the world alongside the ones it has in Silicon Valley and Boston. Microsoft was one of the pioneers in setting up R&D operations in Israel in 1991, making Israel the recipient of the firm’s first R&D center outside the US.

Microsoft’s Israel healthcare team works like “entrepreneurship” venture within the larger corporation, said Bitran. It is made up of experts in a variety of fields, from software engineers to data scientists, product managers, to former paramedics and former healthcare tech professionals.

“Everyone in the group has some affiliation to healthcare,” Bitran said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel. “They are all passionate about creating technology that makes a difference in the world.”

“Nobody comes to my group by coincidence,” she said. People who join the team “want to create technology that can make an impact that can save people’s lives, that can help solve real problems for mankind.”

Bitran is currently looking to expand the team with more workers.

As technology and healthcare converge — with everyday technologies like sensors and smartphones and cloud storage injecting new ways to do traditional medicine — tech firms globally, including giants like Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Apple, are seeking to develop or tap into technologies that can give them a foothold in the growing field. According to Global Market Insights, the global digital health market is set to exceed $504.4 billion by 2025.

Microsoft has been selling its software to healthcare providers for the past 30 years and the firm set up its global healthcare group some seven years ago, leveraging its prowess in AI and in cloud technologies to bring innovation to the conservative medical field.

In 2017, the US firm set up a health unit in its Cambridge, UK-based research lab to develop technologies and bring AI, machine learning and cloud computing to health-professionals and patients globally.

“Microsoft Healthcare is about creating cloud technology and AI technology that is especially for the healthcare industry,” Bitran said.

The Microsoft Healthcare bot technology developed in Israel combines natural language processing technologies and also medical intelligence. It integrates medical content from trusted sources, including information on conditions, symptoms, specialists, medications and procedures, according to the company website. The bot understands medical and clinical terminology, and can also be adapted to the specific needs of the healthcare organizations, enabling them to build their own kind of intelligent health assistants.

So how does Microsoft make sure the privacy of the people looking up their conditions via the bot is protected?

Microsoft spends $1 billion a year in security and privacy, Bitran said. “Given that so many of our customers use our cloud services, we have a long history of being at the forefront of ensuring that data is private and secured,” she said.

“The work that we are doing in AI follows the same requirements and principles we’ve developed to ensure that our customers data is safe and used in a way that serves the patient with full transparency and full data subject rights.”

Matching patients to clinical trials globally

The Israeli healthcare team is also working on another project that will match patients with clinical trials around the globe more efficiently.

The New Hope project is also based on AI technology and is able to connect between patients, doctors and health care organizations regarding ongoing clinical trials around the world, to overcome the difficulty in finding patients for the trials.

At any given moment there are some 50,000 clinical trials going on globally, and about half of them don’t manage to find the patients needed to proceed, said Bitran. These trials are essential for the creation of new drugs and treatments for patients.

“Some patients are not aware that these trials are going on,” Bitran said. The technology could for example help patients get access to innovative cancer treatments that are being used in clinical trials with patients, when all else has failed. The software will ideally be able to understand the criteria for eligibility of the trial and propose candidates, matching trials to potential patients, she explained. The team is still working on the project and there is not date yet for the product’s release.

“It is definitely an important problem to solve,” she said, adding that she is still not sure the technology will be able to completely solve the problem. “But if you can help even a bit to solve this, it will be significant.”

In February last year, the team presented its project to officials at the White House in the US, as part of a challenge set out by the US’s Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which engages with the tech industry to solve pressing issues. The fellows created a challenge that sought to combine artificial intelligence to clinical trials and enabled developers to access to anonymous federal patient data. The Israeli team won the challenge, Bitran said.

Hadas Bitran, center, with Danny Karmon, right, and Shahar Admati, the Microsoft Israel team at the White House in February 2019 (Courtesy)

The technology is still in development and Microsoft is partnering “with strategic partners” to continue its work. “It is a very good example of how technology can enable medical research that can save lives,” she said. It is also an example of how tech giants like Microsoft seek partnerships with other firms or smaller startups to find solutions to pressing challenges.

Because the healthcare industry is very fragmented and very conservative, especially in the US, it is very difficult for companies to “do it alone.”

“The problems in the healthcare industry are too complicated, with too many problems to try and solve them alone,” she said. “This is why we’ve fostered an ecosystem of partners that we work with. We don’t have to solve everything by ourselves.”

Her role in Microsoft is also to be in touch with the local tech ecosystem and with hospitals and healthcare providers to stay tuned to developments and needs, and to “foster innovation”.

“I see hundreds of startups a year,” in the healthcare and the medical space, Bitran said, and Microsoft can offer selected firms the opportunity to become part of its software portfolio offering. “We would collaborate,” she said. “We don’t have to own everything; we don’t have to develop everything.”

In Israel, there are many “great technologies” with small companies that are “doing unique things,” she said.

Looking ahead

One of the biggest challenges the global healthcare scene needs to solve is the “interoperability,” or the “connectedness” of medical systems, she said.

The Israeli healthcare system has a lot of patient data and is also is “very connected” because it has a small number of HMOs, just four, operating within the system, and it is easy for them to talk to each other and to hospitals. That is not the case globally, and especially in the US, where very small HMOs operate and need to interact with a variety of different medical institutions and systems.

This is a big problem, Bitran said, because the “systems don’t talk to each other. So, you need to be able to make systems accessible, get them to the cloud, make them talk to each other.”

“That’s a strong trend that we see in the healthcare industry and it will grow,” she added.

Another trend going forward will be AI continuing to empower medical professionals and patients with information to help doctors do their jobs better and enabling patients to get better services and insights. “That is something we will see more and more.”

A third trend the world will see is what is called precision medicine, being able to use genomics data, to tailor treatment to individuals based on their specific situation.

“Microsoft healthcare is active in all those fronts,” she said.

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