Health sector dominates Microsoft grants

Scheme lets cash-strapped organisations take on risky developments, spread benefits

The latest group of funding recipients under Microsoft’s Innovation Centre scheme continue the marked health-sector emphasis of the awards to date.

In the round announced last week, grants to fund proof-of-concept development go to Waitemata District Health Board (WDHB), Northland District Health Board (NDHB) and the Department of Child, Youth & Family (CYF).

The funding is worth about $100,000 to each recipient, says Microsoft NZ innovation centre manager Shane Bartle.

Waitemata DHB aims to improve the efficiency of monitoring of diabetes-related eye conditions, through videoconferencing and instant messaging tools. This will enable ophthalmologists and other practitioners to get real time feedback from patients, reducing the need for patients to pay a number of visits to specialists in different places. The solution includes development of: a register of people with diabetes, a call and recall system, a tracking system, and a record of results.

The innovation centre scheme essentially pays the cost of employing a skilled development partner. Simpl is Waitemata’s partner in the diabetes project.

Northland has succeeded in its application for the second time. Its latest project aims to provide an electronic monitoring system between hospital specialists and general practitioners to facilitate the review process for surgical patients.

Currently, a number of patients each year fall outside the ‘greatest need’ surgery threshold and are placed on ‘Active Review’, being reassessed six monthly. The project aims to enable practitioners to be more involved in the decision-making review process and to allow them to monitor patient health directly through closer working relationships with specialists.

Northland has already made a success of a project funded by a previous innovation centre grant to improve mobile communications with nurses working away from the hospital. Northland’s partner is firstBASE, which participated in the earlier project.

Mobile staff are also the concern with CYF, but these are social workers, who must have secure access to confidential information on clients. The proposed system, to be developed in collaboration with CAP-Gemini NZ, will provide data encryption and assure those retrieving and sending information of its validity.

Microsoft’s Bartle suggests that the high proportion of health applications among the 14 successful applicants to date may be because health operations "always have more that they can do than they will ever have the resources to do" and they have to be careful about taking on developments that involve a measure of risk. At the same time, the sector seems to be fertile ground for new ideas.

“When you talk with the health project sponsors, you really get a sense of their strong understanding of how technology can help them,” Bartle says. “In a nutshell, the centre provides a forum that helps them to prove and test these ideas and they really welcome that.

“They also like the way that we share the [intellectual property] from the projects with other public sector organisations at no cost. This means other DHBs can pick up an innovation centre project, and look at how it can work for them. This sort of sharing helps meet the need in the sector to be more integrated and share more information.”

Innovation centre grants are restricted to public-sector organisations.

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