Smarter Health Searches


Microsoft’s foray into the growing consumer health market has been demonstrated by its recent acquisition of Medstory a Foster City, Calif., company that is developing a specialized Web search engine for health information. Medstory’s technology has been described as an ontology engine that applies artificial intelligence (AI) to searching health and medical information in journals, government documents, and scholarly work, with the ability to find and identify health concepts, not just sort through Web links and words. Alain Rappaport, Medstory founder and CEO — now officially Microsoft’s General Manager Health Search — was formerly co-founder and chief scientist for Neuron Data, an AI and software tools company for business critical applications. Rappaport spoke with Digital Healthcare & Productivity about how such a search system works.

 

DHP: What led you to develop a health search engine when there are already several search engines available to consumers?

RAPPAPORT: I look at healthcare from an information standpoint, and part of the inefficiency in today’s healthcare system is its inability to bring the right information to the right person at the right tine. I view health search as reaching out to everywhere in the fabric, from consumers to professionals, connecting the dots between all aspects. Search will be everywhere, a significant component of consumer empowerment, whether it be finding your own solutions — a well-being application — or in conjunction with physicians.

DHP: Your search engine is based on intuitive technology, providing pre-qualified information to consumers and health professionals conducting research. How does this work?

RAPPAPORT: Instead of forcing people to think in terms of the way a computer searches, we enable computers to more intuitively conduct searches in the way people think. A recent Pew Internet study said that millions of people go online for health information every day, and half of those said a recent search had an impact on how they take care of themselves or someone else. But a large number of respondents also felt frustrated by the inability to find what they were looking for or by the lack of information.

The current search landscape is driven by simple concepts and delivers the most popular documents, matches keywords, or is restricted to subsets. We are looking at the intelligence of the search engine so it understands your query and gives you the data and applicable context, the equivalent of having an expert at hand who distills and synthesizes information.

Every transaction in healthcare requires knowledge, so therefore healthcare lends itself to information systems that can manage this knowledge and make it more efficient. There has been an incredible transformation of healthcare into an information industry, widely supported by the Web. We’re working on a number of exciting applications of our search engine — you will see interesting applications coming out soon.  

DHP: Do you integrate real-time analysis and an instant dashboard of information?

RAPPAPORT: Users who are performing health-related searches get an instant dashboard of information, summarized from real-time analysis of the search. For example, a user searching for information on “lowering cholesterol” is presented with relevant information such as drugs (atorvastatin and simvastatin), nutrition (Soybeans and olive oil) and other information spanning clinical research to personal health. This is different from other search services that provide lists of Web pages ranked largely by link popularity.

DHP: What about actionable responses — does the consumer know what to do with this information?

RAPPAPORT: Yes, this information needs to be turned into something actionable, so we will also be looking at how the results can take you to the right services and other elements that a user might want to pursue.

DHP: Microsoft also recently acquired Washington, D.C.-based Microsoft Azyxxi, which also uses a form of health intelligence software. How does Azyxxi tie into Medstory?

RAPPAPORT: Azyxxi and Medstory are innovative solutions from Microsoft that address a growing need for better access to, and management of, healthcare data across the health ecosystem. Medstory is a health-specific search tool, primarily used by consumers, which organizes and surfaces the most relevant, online health content for more accurate and active management of health data. 

Azyxxi is a software platform used by physicians within a clinical (hospital) environment, which brings together all types of patient data from hundreds of source.  By connecting data that otherwise may not have been connected, and making the data available at the point of care, physicians are empowered to make more informed, timely decisions regarding diagnosis and treatment.

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