Inside a business, software with a good user interface can improve productivity. Inside a hospital, it can save lives.
That's the premise behind a new collaboration between Microsoft and the NHS that seeks to develop a common design for clinical software. Microsoft isn't trying to prescribe the entire software design, but is proposing some commonality in terms of where on a screen medications are listed and what types of information about the drug are listed.
Tim Smokoff, general manager of Microsoft's health care unit said: "It is kind of like when you get into a car. Every dashboard looks different, but they are all kind of the same."
By standardising on a common way to display medical data, Microsoft hopes the industry can make a dent in the 600,000 errors that take place in US hospitals each year, many of them from medication mix-ups.
A 2005 study showed that the most high-tech hospitals in the country have mortality rates seven per cent below those of other hospitals. But separate research, published the same year, found that high rates of drug errors can still occur in computerised hospitals.
The user interface project is part of a broader health care initiative at Microsoft, which now has 600 people in the area, up from 200 workers just two years ago. The company touts its $1bn in health care revenue, though the bulk of that is from sales of Windows, Office and Windows Server.
Microsoft is not alone in eyeing health care as a booming opportunity. Google is focused on many of the same areas as Microsoft and Intel also has efforts under way that parallel some of Microsoft's notions. Smokoff says Microsoft supports its longtime chip partner's efforts, but the two are not working together.
"Intel has their own initiative in this space," he said. "We're supportive of their initiative, but we are not partnered with them."
In addition to work on tools for hospitals, insurers and drug companies, Microsoft is also focused on tools for consumers.
There, efforts centre around the notion of a personal health record. The idea is that there would be an open standard that would allow all kinds of information - medical device data, prescription information and other patient records - to be maintained in one electronic file.
Central to the vision, Smokoff said, is the idea that the information would be owned by the individual. "Look for some announcements within the next couple months on how we take that to market," he said.
Microsoft has also been making acquisitions in the health care arena. In February, the company bought Medstory, a health-based search company with tools that were recently integrated into the search feature on MSN's health and fitness page. On Google, Smokoff said, the first result for earache is a rock band by that name. With Medstory's tool, you get a list of relevant results in six categories, including medications, related diseases and possible tests and procedures.
Last year Microsoft acquired patient database company Azyxxi. And Smokoff said to expect more purchases from Microsoft.