What COVID-19 has taught us about the power and possibilities of AI in health

Health care worker adjusting the straps on a PPE mask


Tom Lawry | National Director for AI, Health and Life Sciences


Ours has been called the information age. There is probably no place where this name rings truer than healthcare. In the 1950s A newly-minted physician would go their entire career before seeing medical information and knowledge double. Those graduating today can expect this to happen in a year or less.i

Such is the challenge and opportunity for those in health and medicine today. Artificial Intelligence (AI) gives us the ability to harness the power of healthcare’s data tsunami to make us better at virtually everything we strive to better at. In this regard, AI will augment much of what we do but will not replace us…Everything about AI in health starts with humans using it to do good.

Enter the new possibilities of AI. In the hands of competent and caring clinicians, data scientists, health executives, and others, our charge is straight forward – to use it to make a bigger difference than we are making today.

AI is no longer about the future. It’s about the present and what clinical and business leaders are doing now to leverage this next big shift in healthcare’s computing platform. Nothing illustrates this better than the rapid adoption of AI to help stem the tide of COVID-19.

Within weeks from the onset of the pandemic, talented and agile clinicians, data scientists and Microsoft partners harnessed the capabilities of AI to accomplish things like:

  • Creation of the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19), a repository of more than 29,000 scholarly articles on the coronavirus family from around the world. This effort makes use of Microsoft’s knowledge extraction capabilities to empower the medical and machine learning research communities to mine text data for insights that can help fight COVID-19.
  • Development of a specialized COVID-19 bot used by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and hospitals to automate the handling of consumer inquiries and concerns on COVID-19 symptoms. In a matter of weeks this walked millions of concerned consumers through a symptom check and recommended next steps.
  • Microsoft partners like KenSci, JVION and others created AI-driven solutions that helped clinicians and hospitals predict patient volumes and bed availability. They used AI for public health purposes by creating community vulnerability maps to locate COVID “hotspots” while allowing researchers and public health officials to assess causal factors including social determinant data.

In many respects, AI’s use in the past few months to help fight COVID brings home the fact that the revolution has begun. AI is pervasive in our daily lives. It’s beginning to disrupt the world of health and medicine in ways not thought possible even a few years ago. In a world of “intelligent everything” there will be no room for unintelligent health.

Beyond COVID-19, what if we could detect heart disease in a single heartbeat? How about unlimited, AI-assisted virtual health consults for one dollar a visit?  Sound like more AI hype? It’s not. Transformative health services are happening now.ii iii They’re driven by restless individuals and organizations unwilling to accept the status quo in health.

Foundational to such change is the Cloud and our investments being made to further support agile innovation. Our latest contributions for health include Microsoft’s work on  open standards like Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) to transform how we manage health data and the recent announcement about the Microsoft Health Cloud.

Such change could not come at a better time. Clinical and health leaders today are faced with an unrelenting set of challenges. The “long tail” of COVID-19. Ever-expanding medical capabilities. Constrained resources and staff shortages. An increasingly diverse mix of patients and consumers whose needs only grow. As we have learned, merely getting better with the tools we have is not going to deliver the results we need.

A different model is emerging with AI that will eclipse current systems in delivering on the promises we make every day: To improve health while delivering greater value. To provide highly personalized experiences to health consumers. To restore clinicians to be the caregivers they want to be rather than the data entry clerks we’re turning them into by forcing them to use systems and processes conceived decades ago.

Such is the hope and opportunity for how we apply AI to solve healthcare’s biggest challenges.


To learn more about how AI is shaping currently shaping healthcare, register for Imagining the Future: Microsoft AI virtual summit.

Read “AI in Health: A Leader’s Guide to Winning in the New Age of Intelligent Health Systems”, Published by HIMSS and CRC Press.


i Densen, Peter MD, “Challenges and Opportunities Facing Medical Education.” Trans Am Clin Climatol Assoc. 2011: 122: 48-58
iiMihaela Porumb, Ernesto Iadanza, Sebastiano Massaro, Leandro Pecchia, A convolutional neural network approach to detect congestive heart failure, Biomedical Signal Processing and Control Journal, 2019,
iiiANNE D’INNOCENZIO and TOM MURPHY , Walmart’s Sam’s Club Launches Health Care Pilot to Members, AP Business Writers, 2019, https://www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2019-09-26/walmarts-sams-club-launches-health-care-pilot-to-members