An innovative AI-powered virtual health assistant service unveiled by Microsoft last week, edging healthcare further towards a hi-tech future, was developed by programmers at the company’s Israeli research and development facilities.The Microsoft Healthcare Bot service aims to empower healthcare organizations to build and deploy virtual health assistants and chatbots that can be used to enhance processes, self-service and other efforts to reduce company costs, thereby granting medical professionals more time to care for their patients. The cloud service is now available in Microsoft’s Azure marketplace, and includes unique healthcare intelligence such as the ability to triage complex medical questions and a set of pre-built services including a handoff feature and a symptom checker. Bots can be customized to suit healthcare brands and unique business problems.“You don’t have to start from scratch,” said Hadas Bitran, head of Microsoft Healthcare Israel.“It has healthcare content knowledge such as a symptom checker and information about conditions, medications and procedures. It has language models trained to understand healthcare terminology. It understands if you are complaining or if you are asking about what doctor you should see, or if you are thinking about side effects of a medication.”The system does not attempt to diagnose or offer treatment suggestions for medical conditions, but rather to provide otherwise less accessible information to patients.Partnering with the Israeli team to develop the service were Aurora Health Care, based in eastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois; Premera Blue Cross, the largest health plan in the Pacific Northwest; and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), a global non-profit health enterprise.In 2017, Bitran and her team started the service as a research project designed to evaluate the feasibility of developing a toolbox that would enable healthcare providers to deploy virtual assistants in keeping with their unique brands, in addition to healthcare industry workflows and terminology.Bitran explained, “We were asking ourselves, ‘What are the biggest pain points of healthcare customers? How can we best help self-serve healthcare users? What would be the cases that would be most interesting for customers?’”A critical part of the development process was ensuring the inclusion of built-in privacy controls to comply with increasingly demanding data regulations, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).“Virtual assistants will never replace medical professionals; that is not what they are for. Rather, virtual assistants help ease the burden from the healthcare system, helping medical professionals optimize their time.”Today, Microsoft has offices in Tel Aviv, Ra’anana, Herzliya, Haifa and Nazareth. The company’s research and development facilities are home to approximately 1,000 employees, who focus on areas of development such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and big data analytics.