We’re all familiar with the scene: the hero of the movie faces a seemingly impossible challenge, when suddenly a moment of clarity hits. His entire life, everything he trained for has prepared him for this moment. His collective experience and opportunity have converged — and because of this, he is ready to rise to the occasion.
But this is real life, not Star Wars or Spider-Man. Sitting at home in Palo Alto, David Rhew has another movie in mind for his professional path.
“My career has been kind of like that movie with the hobbit: ‘The Unexpected Journey,’” explains Microsoft’s Chief Medical Officer. “This has been an unexpected journey for me, in large part because I did not anticipate that I’d be in a position working on technologies that could help at this kind of global scale. But I love working at Microsoft; I love the culture, I love the people, and I love how we’re helping our customers transform during this pandemic.”
The virtues of being curious
“Something I always wanted to do in my career was help people,” he explains. “And when I looked around to see how I could do that, I decided to be a physician.”
Even though his path forward to help others was rooted in medicine, Rhew was always intrigued by the potential of computers. As an undergraduate he double majored in computer science. His senior thesis: Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare. After this intellectual “spider bite,” Rhew often found himself envisioning futuristic possibilities that blended technology with medicine to make positive change in the world.
“After college, I went through the traditional route of medical school, residency; I focused on internal medicine, and interned at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles,” recalls Rhew. “But I was always curious how you came to a diagnoses, and the people I thought were truly impressive were the infectious disease doctors, because they had such a breadth of knowledge. I decided late in my residency that I wanted to go for an infectious disease fellowship, so I applied to UCLA and was accepted.”
During the year-long gap between residency and studying disorders caused by bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses, Rhew was presented with an unexpected stop in his career journey. He decided not to waste the time.
Bridging the gap between medicine and technology
During that year, he saw the value in looking beyond medicine as an independently practiced art, and more as a collaborative field where universal truths like prescribing beta blockers for victims of heart attacks can have a major impact. He joined healthcare startup Zynx Health and it was here that Rhew combined his tech and medicine interests to automate reminders, integrate electronic health records, and ultimately help the company become the top clinical decision support vendor in the healthcare industry.
By making the most of this uncertain time in his professional life, he caught the attention Samsung. “They were very interested in what I was doing,” he remembers. “When I was offered a position, many people were like, ‘What does a chief medical officer do for a technology company?’ But what we made people realize is that these technologies all around us — the smartphone in particular — had a lot of capabilities for medicine. Today, people don’t think twice to use their smartphones for healthcare, but back then it was still a foreign concept.”
Six years later, after spearheading such efforts as Samsung’s virtual cardiac rehabilitation program, Rhew came to Microsoft in mid-2019. “I was so impressed, not only with the people, but also the vision of how the company was developing a platform that could support digital health care solutions,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of that, and it’s been a wonderful journey from where I started to where I’m at.”
Impactful actions in an unexpected reality
Less than a year later, Rhew’s unexpected journey has placed the right person in the right place, at the right time. “Since COVID-19 hit, it has been really remarkable how I’ve been able to apply things I never thought I would, like my infectious disease training, alongside the broader ways Microsoft is helping.”
Among the myriad of efforts Rhew has been a part of is Mural Virtual Care, a team-up with GE that allows healthcare professionals to remotely monitor ICU patients. “GE Healthcare created a tool that hospitals can use to monitor multiple patients on ventilators,” he explains. “Now, medical professionals can manage more people with less resources, so people don’t have to keep going into the room to check on the machine and risk exposing themselves. It has a triple benefit: improving work force efficiency, decreasing the need to use scarce PPE, and decreasing infections.”
Rhew has also been involved in multiple efforts involving existing Microsoft technology, nimbly adapting to face this pandemic. “The Microsoft Healthcare Bot service, for instance, has made an immediate impact. It provides individualized experiences, at scale, that let people self-report symptoms and exposure risk to qualified health professionals,” he says. “We’ve also had tremendous success with Teams Virtual Visits; I was just on the phone with a healthcare provider who shared that two weeks prior to our call, they had never even used Teams. They were now ramping up to have all their virtual visits on Teams — and were very thankful for a tool that has been a lifesaver.”
(The Microsoft Healthcare Bot service empowers healthcare organizations to build and deploy an AI-powered, compliant, conversational healthcare experience at scale. Learn more here)
The adoption rate for these and other technologies has soared in recent months, serving a vital need. “It’s remarkable when you think about the adoption rate for these,” he marvels. “The bot service has had millions of user sessions for COVID-19. We’re talking those kind of numbers after only the first two months. It has been adopted by hospitals, healthcare systems, countries, the CDC; the Teams collaboration has also just been phenomenal in terms of collaboration.”
Rhew’s role at Microsoft and the success technology is having in finding new ways to combat this infectious disease mean his expertise is widely needed. As the international coordinator for the internal COVID-19 disaster response team, Rhew is remotely assisting in Microsoft’s efforts around the world.
The next chapter
Hopefully, the next turn in this journey will focus on recovery and a return to normalcy. Rhew and those around him have already begun planning accordingly — particularly regarding how technology is best used for our healthcare needs.
“I’ve seen a lot of things that have changed, and some things that haven’t,” he says of his career bridging the gap between medicine and tech. “Technology has allowed us to pool information together, draw insights and become more proactive. But what hasn’t changed is that there are patients, and then there are doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and others who care about them.”
Ultimately, Rhew is thankful for his unexpected journey — one that put him in a position to do something. “There are very few companies that have the right vision, the right people, and can-do things at this scale,” he says. “Microsoft checks all those boxes. We have a platform, it has the capabilities to do all that needs to be done, and we have the people who know how it needs to be applied. We’re transforming the industry, and I’m proud to be part of the team.”
If you are interested in joining Microsoft and learning from leaders like Rhew here in the Bay Area, job openings can be found here: https://aka.ms/MicrosoftBayAreaCareers.