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From the simple intimacy of a bedside conversation between a provider and a patient to the vast complexities of the global healthcare industry, data streams. A provider’s transcribed notes, statistics from clinical trials, genomics data sets, and imaging reports that shines light on the invisible, all of it, and more, flood the system with information. We can know more, much more, than ever before. But we also know that without insight, it’s all just words and numbers. We need to easily access the data from disparate sources, reveal patterns, and readily act to improve efficiencies and thus outcomes. Sometimes that’s the understanding that can do nothing less than save a life. The stakes are high, which makes the journey to harmonize technology and healthcare of immense significance for virtually all of us, everywhere. View our latest Healthcare Innovation Forum which aired on June 17, 2021. Along with industry experts, we explore the extraordinary potential of artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP) to transform healthcare and society.

AI and NLP are increasingly the keys. When Covid-19 all but overwhelmed the world, these superpowers had already begun to revolutionize healthcare. The pandemic supercharged the urgency to apply these technologies to every medical discussion, decision and diagnosis. Virtual healthcare quickly became perhaps the most obvious example of the need for healthcare and technology to speak more fluently to each other. Providers and patients meeting on the digital screen moved from an emerging possibility to a necessity. AI empowered many of these human interactions. To cite just one example, AI-assisted health bots analyzed patient symptoms with unprecedented speed and precision, harnessing and clarifying data across towns, cities and even continents, making it possible for physicians and other caregivers to do the work of healing with new effectiveness, in a new world.

But, as important as virtual care will continue to be, AI and NLP reach more deeply and broadly into every aspect of healthcare. Unstructured text, free text, may be the most fundamental challenge as we seek to improve operational efficiencies and enhance patient outcomes. Digitally and on paper, information is non-stop, flowing from every pivot point, rich with critical insight if you can extract it. Recently announced as being generally available in July 2021, Text Analytics for Health, an NLP service within Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services, will be a game changer. Words and phrases within unstructured text can be associated with identified healthcare and biomedical language and semantic types to unlock understanding, like the meaning of a symptom, a drug and dosing interval, linking the concepts to common clinical coding systems, understanding certainty, and even establishing relations between the entities. A whole new level of connection is created among medical professionals, researchers, data analysts, even software vendors. The entire ecosystem connects, becomes holistic, not walled off, leading to more efficient healthcare ecosystems and better care.

It is challenging work, but I believe the moment is now to get it done. As data from Covid-19 flows into the system at unprecedented volume, this is the critical moment to put AI and NLP to work for people. Records must be translated, aggregated, analyzed, classified, sorted, combined, and recombined. Online documents, scanned PDFs, reports, research, patient records, facility accounts, bills, and ledgers all must be analyzed to unearth the diamonds of insight hidden in the rough data. It is a generational challenge, a chance to shift the dynamics of healthcare technology to remarkable new standards of precision, speed, and efficiency.

It will not happen without collaboration. Across industries and around the world, the more everyone in healthcare and technology work together the quicker we will be able to tap the full power of AI and NLP. At Microsoft, we intend to lead, but we also know we can’t do it alone. Partnership has always been at the heart of how we work. That’s why, for example, we have joined with the Allen Institute for AI and other leading research groups to prepare the Covid-19 Open Research Dataset, a free resource of more than 47,000 scholarly articles for use by the global research community. We have also developed the Covid-19 search engine to enable researchers to learn the lessons of the pandemic.

Our partners in the healthcare industry are also indispensable. To cite just a couple of examples, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in the UK, one of the world’s preeminent hospitals caring for children, is unlocking the value of their data using AI to predict bed space utilization, and Helsinki University Hospital (HUS) in Finland, which is the country’s largest healthcare care provider, both exemplify how to apply AI with decisiveness and commitment to lift care and the administration of care to the next level.

Data is perhaps the single most vivid example in the world right now of too much of a good thing. In the last two years, more data was generated than in the previous 5000 years. In the near future, experts expect a yottabyte of data will be generated every day. That’s a big number. A yottabyte is in fact the largest measurement we have, equal to 10 to the 24th (a septillion) power. But dozens of zeroes on a page don’t capture the real significance of it. What matters is what we can see in a yottabyte of data. The impact of AI and NLP will always be measured in human terms, in the enhancement of lives, in what we can do with what we can know.

It is a journey all of us share, which is why I invite you to view our latest Healthcare Innovation Forum that aired on June 17, 2021. Along with industry experts, we explored the extraordinary potential of AI and NLP to transform healthcare and society. For the caregivers and researchers on the frontlines of medicine, for the administrators of our great businesses and institutions, and for the technologists who build and implement novel solutions, the future is here. Let’s meet it, together.

 

Editor’s note:
On July 9, 2021, we announced Text Analytics for Health as generally available with Text Analytics in Azure Cognitive Services. Learn more here.