In an exhaustive interview with Gabe Rijpma, Director, Health and Human Services Industry, Microsoft Asia Pacific, eHealth has attempted to probe the Microsoft’s vision for fostering e-Health in the Asia Pacific region and also its pragmatic corporate initiatives towards fruition of that vision. The interview can provide valuable information about Microsoft’s investments to NGOs  and international development organizations which have great development potential, Microsoft’s proactive stance in disaster management, and the software giant’s approximate allocation in its annual budget for healthcare IT. The interview also explores Gabe’s candid and welcome views about India’s e-Healthcare scenario…

  Kindly elaborate on the various ways through which ICT can facilitate healthcare of developing countries in the Asia Pacific region -a region characterized by acute lack of basic healthcare infrastructure, and where the underprivileged populace are miles away from quality health.

There are three key areas where I think ICT can play a profound role in helping developing countries in the Asia Pacific region. The first being information access. Through the use of Internet kiosks and community Internet centers, people in those  regions today have far better and more up to date information regarding health issues than they have had ever before.

The second is in the area of providing remote tele-health services. This is about extending the geographical reach of health professionals through the use of technology. By leveraging technology such as web cams, electronic medical devices and the Internet, we can really make a difference in getting expertise to these often very remote areas in Asia Pacific. To provide an example of this, the work that we have been doing with partners such as Brilliance Informatics and the Ministry of Health in Malaysia can be very pertinent. The Teleprimary care project is all about extending health services to remote areas, facilitated by technology.

The third area where I think ICT can play a big role is in improving health surveillance and getting to a point where we have almost real- time monitoring and indicators of what is happening  with health related issues at a village or community level. With pervasiveness of mobile phones today, even at the village and community levels we have an amazing opportunity to use those mobile phones to report health issues in real time. Alerts as well as guidance and recommendations can then be easily sent back and forth from centralized areas. For example, we are doing work in Indonesia with a partner called Voxiva, to do real-time monitoring of avian influenza in these rural communities. All through the use of SMS text messaging and combining that with portal and database technology for helping ministries get real time monitoring. This is incredibly powerful as many of these reports are still done on paper; sometimes taking several weeks for the outbreak information to reach the relevant authorities. Making this more prompt allows us to react more quickly, and may be even save lives.

  What are Microsoft’s recent ICT innovations and programmes in the domain of healthcare?

At Microsoft we started our dedicated health vertical in Asia Pacific, in July of 2006. We are very focused on delivering our vision of knowledge driven health in Asia Pacific and are taking a number of positive steps so that we can address not only underserved communities but entire populations in that area, through advancing the state of health ICT and its adoption. We are doing some really interesting work currently in the areas of building connected health systems. We recently launched the Connected Health Framework (CHF), which  provides documentation and guidance to health organizations looking at building out connected health systems. In addition to that, we also just launched an open source project for something we call the Health Connection Engine, which makes it much easier for people to take the guidance in the CHF and start making that a reality.

  How Microsoft is partnering with government agencies and international development organisations in Asia Pacific region for research and project implementation in the healthcare sector?

We have an ongoing investment and commitment to research organizations and international development organizations. Through programmes such as Unlimited Potential we are investing with NGOs to broaden access, for reaching out to another one billion people by 2015. Our five-year, USD 250 million investment in its Partners in Learning program is already active in 101 countries, with training that has equipped 2.5 million teachers and reached more than 57 million students across these countries. We also have made investments in multi- stakeholder programs such as the Pan Asia ICT R&D Grants Program, which was directly focused on enabling research organizations to do innovative work in the areas of health, education, governance and so forth. There we have been working with organizations such as IDRC, AMIC and UN and many others of similar standing.

  Where do you think India stands as compared to other developing countries in the Asia Pacific region, in terms of ICT usage in private and public healthcare sectors? How does Microsoft view this country as a potential market for healthcare IT?

The great thing about India is there is such a  passion and focus in everyone who I have met there, about solving issues in healthcare through effective use of IT. India has some unique challenges, but has an amazing abundance of brilliant people who I know will deliver the outcomes India needs through applying themselves. I think the market potential for e-Health applications in India will be vast. Right now we see a lot of research and development going on in India itself for doing this. As the market matures, I think we will see some broad consolidation of e-Health applications to foster even bigger and better outcomes.

  On the one hand India is fast emerging as a hub for low-cost, high quality healthcare destination, giving fillip to health tourism. On the other hand, there is a rampant lack of even basic public healthcare infrastructure for millions of semi- rban and rural Indians. Is Microsoft planning to tap this gap for potential business benefits and also for adding social value?

The divide that exists between the people who can afford healthcare and those that cannot is a real concern for all of us around the world. I think ICT has a role to play but first and foremost we have to find ways of making healthcare more affordable as well as encouraging people to take up nursing and medicine. Today we still have an acute shortage of doctors and nurses around the world, and that really limits access too. ICT role here is probably best placed in the area of learning, information sharing and improving access as I outlined earlier.

  What is the approximate annual budget allocation and/or percentage of Microsoft R&D in healthcare IT?  What are the expected welfare and economic dividends from this allocation, in the near future?

While we do not provide specific breakdowns, we do spend approximately US$7b in R&D every year. The healthcare segment is the largest segment of the world’s economy. And it is also one of the fastest growing. It’s an area in which information plays and will play an increasingly large role. The impact that information technology will make to the health sector will make an incredible difference to the users.

 In the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, disaster management has assumed great importance in India. Does Microsoft Asia Pacific have any plans to address the trauma-related issues among these victims through telemental health?

Microsoft is very committed to working with its partners and customers to find solutions to some of the most difficult issues facing us in situations like these. We have been working diligently to figure out how we can leverage ICT to improve response times, to ensure people get the right help as well as ensuring that all the amazing organizations that respond in difficult times like these can use ICT to better share and coordinate information with each other.

For instance, during the relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina, Microsoft Office Groove- a collaboration software program that helps teams work together dynamically and effectively, even if team members work for different organizations, work remotely, or work offline- that is part of the Microsoft Office system, was widely used to allow collaboration among rescue and relief organizations working across different infrastructure, in adverse and unpredictable conditions. 

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