Electronic Data Sharing, Cloud-Computing, and Collaboration: The WBBA Talks on the Future of Health IT

“What is healthcare IT?” That was the question that kicked off the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association (WBBA)’s Health IT event last week, which was focused on recognizing the important role that information technology plays within the healthcare industry, finding ways to use technology to improve healthcare in the future, and looking forward to the innovations in health IT coming our way before 2015.

To spearhead the discussion, which was held at the Microsoft Conference Center in Redmond, the WBBA brought in Eric Schadt, the chief scientific officer at Pacific Biosciences. Schadt led a panel that included Jac Davies, director of the Beacon Community of the Inland Northwest (a collaboration with Inland Northwest Health Services), physician and Sage Bionetworks president and co-founder Stephen Friend, Swedish Medical Center chief executive Rod Hochman, senior director of Microsoft’s applied research and technology division Jim Karkanias, and Insilicos president Erik Nilsson.

While topics ranged from electronic medical records to video-based primary care, the panelists all seemed to agree that the future of health IT will involve bringing together the patient, physician, and research scientist. As we near 2015, many in the industry predict healthcare will see an integration of social media, cloud computing, and collaborative commons—creating resources that allow consumers to more actively engage with their health through information technology. Here are some of the highlights from each of the panelists:

Jac Davies, Beacon Community of the Inland Northwest (BCIN):

The BCIN is a federally funded program aimed at improving healthcare in communities throughout eastern Washington and northern Idaho through innovation and collaboration involving information technology. In May, the Inland Northwest Health Services, BCIN’s parent organization, was awarded a three-year, $15.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to support the meaningful implementation and use of health IT across 14 counties in the region, with an emphasis on prevention and improved management of diabetes.

The fundamental question the BCIN is asking in implementing this program is, “Does the information technology really make a difference—where should we be going?” Davies said.

Eastern Washington and northern Idaho have had a traditionally high adoption rate of electronic medical records, Davies said, but “what doesn’t exist very well is the ability to move that information from one office to another.” Davies said. What’s more, she said, primary care facilities and hospitals are not capitalizing on the existence of electronic resources to provide better care for patients and improve efficiency for healthcare providers. BCIN aims to turn that around, in part by expanding on the support systems and integration tools for existing health IT services, and to bolster preventative health services for diseases like diabetes.

“Ultimately we hope to reduce the number of people who show up in the emergency care environment with diabetes-related issues,” she said. “We really look to be able to use technology to bridge gaps—there are so many gaps in our healthcare system,” she said.

Rod Hochman, Swedish Medical Center:

Swedish Medical Center is the largest non-profit health provider in the Seattle Metropolitan area. One of its primary campaigns has been promoting the use of the hospital’s electronic medical record system, called Epic, at independent physicians offices, “so you have the same records wherever you are.” Hochman said. “Healthcare is the last bastion of mom and pop stores,” he added. “The frustration for all of us as patients as you move from one place to another is that you’re almost a new person at each new place.”

“The first step in healthcare is to make everything digital,” Hochman said. “The next step is to takes what’s digital, and make sense of it—to make some intelligence out of the information you already have.” One example would be using personalized data from electronic medical records, combined with data from available studies, to create individualized predictive care models. This is something Hochman hopes to see as developing over the next few years.

Jim Karkanias, Microsoft:

Karkanias joined Microsoft in 2006 to work on the Health Solutions Group, a new venture aimed at revolutionizing healthcare through the integration of business, process, and technology. “Arguably healthcare is a data problem, and we’re trying to pioneer a new kind of healthcare that is data-driven,” Karkanias said.

Karkanias said that the issue faced by many organizations—Microsoft included—is how to bring medical diagnosis, resources, predictive modeling, and anticipatory medicine all together for analysis without short-changing any one area.

Looking ahead to 2015, Karkanias says consumers will likely be able to interact with their medical data and key players in their health and wellness world, like physicians and family members, using many of the same tools we see being utilized by consumers today in cloud computing and social media.

“We’re imagining a world where consumers are an active participant in their health, supported by data, and tied together by models that help us all understand that data,” he said.

Karkanias displayed an example of one of these tools: a personalized health dashboard with “news feeds” of relevant data that is stored in the cloud and accessible from anywhere. The data available on the dashboard would go beyond what’s in your electronic medical record—it would also include information for family members who play an active role in your health, information on scientific studies that directly relate to your health, models that show possible outcomes of decisions you make about food, exercise, and so forth, information on how your disease might progress, etc.

“We do this for financial planning,” Karkanias said. “It would be very interesting to think about that model for healthcare.”

Such models could also use the power of social networks to give patients access to information and resources provided by other patients with similar conditionals—data that could help patients research and decide on a treatment plan, as well as help physicians make recommendations.

“Imagine doing this for physicians,” Karkanias said. “‘The last 1000 people who were treated this way, these were their outcomes.'”

Erik Nilsson, Insilicos:

Insilicos develops biomarker discovery software that has the potential to improve disease diagnoses and enable the development of new therapies. By making valuable medical data available in what Nilsson calls a “cloud cluster,” Insilicos has created “cheap supercomputers for everybody,” he said. And he agreed that scientists could benefit from a collaborative lab and clinical information system “in neutral territory.”

Right now, “It’s like your data’s on Jupiter, and you can’t get there. You’ll never live there, you can’t see it—you can send robots,” he said. “And that’s not instinctive—you want your data close.”

In the future he says the healthcare industry will see a greater emphasis on computer power dedicated to biomarker research.

Stephen Friend, Sage Bionetworks:

Sage Bionetworks is a nonprofit biomedical research organization aimed at coordinating a link between academic and commercial biomedical researchers through a digital “commons.” Sage is located at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and is financially supported through a combination of philanthropic donations, research grants, and commercial partnerships.

As health IT capabilities grow, according to Friend, researchers will have to amend not only what they do, but how they go about doing it—the emphasis will become less about research and clinical data, and more about how that data is stored, accessed, and used. “The approaches that we’ve been taking to develop therapies have to be looked at,” he said.

“The reality is that our way of developing drugs is in a pitiful state, and the reason is that our concept of who has Alzheimer’s, or schizophrenia, or any other system-based disease, has to be taken down,” he said. “We’re not looking at the serious heterogeneity of what causes these diseases—tracking all of the systems alone, you’re not going to know why that person got Alzheimer’s, or that person had a heart attack.”

Medical research, according to Friend, has become a “tower of Babel,” a “walled garden too mired in academia.” Between all the studies and reams and reams of data spread across countless academic institutions and research organizations, it’s nearly impossible to get real breakthroughs to patients. “Scientists are not thinking of their data as an ingredient to the solution. They’re thinking of it as an ingredient to their next paper,” he said.

But through the Sage Commons, Friend said, researchers and physicians could develop ways to share and manage data, tools, and models for understanding disease—enabling a pool of resources that isn’t limited by intellectual property.

“To do that we’re going to have to have an adoption of standards around the genomics data,” he said. And while this may not be an easy task, Friend says it’s the needed resolution to a broken system. He added, “We have to change how we’re working. It’s not just the what, but how.”

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