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Walk Softly and Carry a Global Strategy

May 24, 2010
by Kate Huvane Gamble
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A few years after dipping its toes into the health IT pool, Microsoft is starting to flex its muscles and expand its presence in the ever-growing healthcare space

When Microsoft expanded its empire into the healthcare IT realm a few years ago, the company evinced more than a few skeptical reactions. But the software giant, headquartered in Redmond, Wash., has employed a deliberate strategy, focusing on two products that address critical needs in today's industry: Amalga, a third-party aggregation solution designed to create a unified view of patient data, and HealthVault, a personal health record.

And at a time when the healthcare IT industry is heating up, Microsoft has increased its presence further, cultivating a partnership with the Atlanta-based Eclipsys Corp., and acquiring the Andover, Mass.-Based software provider Sentillion earlier this year.

Bill Crounse
Bill Crounse

The company is making statements, and people are taking notice.

“Microsoft's a marketing machine. Besides being one of the early pioneers in the high-tech industry, they're very good about messaging,” says Jeremy Bikman, executive vice president of research and strategy at the Orem, Utah-based KLAS. And the message, he says, is that Microsoft is here to stay.

Driving the IT strategy for the organization is the Microsoft Health Solutions Group, which has grown in spades since its inception in 2005, opening research and development centers in several cities, both domestically and internationally. It has acquired six companies in five years and has grown to about 700 employees.

The company's big splash came in 2006 with the purchase of health intelligence software firm Azyxxi - a move that raised many eyebrows, he notes. “When Microsoft made its move into healthcare space, we got a lot of calls about it. So we made some calls, and we found that about half of the people were pretty excited and thought Microsoft could maybe shake things up, and the other half seemed to think that it was just the latest in a long line of vendors that have tried to get in the healthcare space, and they wouldn't last.”

Jeremy Bikman
Jeremy Bikman

But Microsoft has indeed lasted, and has become one of the most compelling companies in healthcare IT (as evidenced by the voting of Healthcare Informatics' readers). And while some may point to the enormous pool of resources the company draws from, those on the inside attest that the key to its success has been a willingness to take risks.

“As we've thought about investing more and more in healthcare, the way we think is, how can we do things differently and solve some of the common challenges in a new way, rather than marching down well-worn paths,” says Nate McLemore, general manager of business development and policy for Microsoft Health Solutions Group. “I think a good example of that is Amalga. We've taken a different data architecture, pulled that data together, and allowed for future innovation.”

The products

The Microsoft Amalga Unified Intelligence System (the new version of Azyxxi) is an enterprise platform designed to retrieve data from disparate sources - including scanned documents, lab and imaging results, and patient demographics - and display it in a centralized location. Originally developed by researchers at Washington Hospital Center in 1996, the product provides a “central warehouse for deep data analysis that can be sliced and diced to drive continuous improvements in quality of patient care and operations,” according to a report published by KLAS (“Beyond the CIS: Why are hospitals buying aggregation solutions?”). Geared toward large integrated delivery networks, Amalga is live at a number of hospitals and health systems, including The Johns Hopkins Hospital, New York Presbyterian Hospital, and MedStar Health group.

With the Amalga solution, Microsoft aims to meet the growing need to present data in an effective and timely manner, and to help providers meet ever-changing critical reporting requirements, says the KLAS report.

That goal goes hand-in-hand with the company's overall strategy in healthcare IT, according to Bill Crounse, M.D., senior director for worldwide health at Microsoft. “It's really a three-pronged approach: we need to liberate data from silos; we need to connect all the various healthcare players in the ecosystem of care; and finally, we need to give people intuitive, affordable tools that they can use to manage the vast amounts of data. I think that's a sweet spot for a company, and I think that's evident in the work we're doing with Amalga.”

However, while the solution certainly shows promise, it's still too early in the game to get an accurate read on how it will fare long-term, says Bikman. “So far, people are excited at what they're seeing, but we haven't found enough hospitals that are advanced enough in their use for us to be able to rate.” And while he feels that a lot of the attention Amalga is attracted can be attributed to high-profile users like Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic, the other “wow factor” is its unique paradigm. “That's probably why it's so intriguing. From what we can tell, it's getting good results from people being able to view data they couldn't view before. But we'll see what happens as we learn more about it.”

As we've thought about investing more and more in healthcare, the way we think is, how can we…solve some of the common challenges in a new way, rather than marching down well-worn paths.-Nate McLemore, Microsoft Health Solutions Group