There is no shortage of innovation in healthcare, but startups and even large companies face challenges in getting their new technologies in the hands of the front-line doctors who would implement them.
Enter the University of Washington’s new Primary Care Innovations Lab, which aims to connect private companies with doctors and other experts to assist in all phases of new technology development, including needs assessments, early stage design, implementation, and testing.
The PCI Lab, organized last summer, focuses on primary care because of the immense size of the practice, accounting for a billion doctor visits annually, says Matthew Thompson, professor and vice chair for research in the UW School of Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine. For more than two decades running, the UW has had the nation’s top medical school for both primary care and family medicine, according to U.S. News & World Report graduate school rankings.
Thompson says primary care doctors are seeing growing patient populations and more chronic disease. Meanwhile, they’re being asked to provide more preventive care, coordinate with other healthcare professionals, and work toward broader health-system goals of improving the patient experience and population health, while reducing costs.
“Everybody is now realizing that any healthcare system that’s going to be effective, and cost effective, has to rely on primary care,” Thompson says. “Yet there’s been precious little implementation of new technology in primary care.”
That stems in part from a gulf between healthcare technology innovators and primary care practitioners.
“There’s just a real crying need for someone to bring the players together to join up the tech developers on the one hand [and] the users, the implementers, the health systems on the other hand, and I think that’s where we see the PCI Lab sitting in this unique spot,” he says.
The lab follows another Seattle effort to unite healthcare innovators with the decision-makers inside large healthcare organizations. Last Year, Cambia Health Solutions, owner of a portfolio of healthcare and insurance companies, opened the Cambia Grove as a place for various healthcare stakeholders to meet and discuss problems and potential technology solutions.
The Cambia Grove and the PCI Lab represent potentially significant assets to a region trying to unite its strengths in technology innovation and healthcare.
The PCI Lab wants to work with both innovators and practitioners early and often to save entrepreneurs from wasting time on ideas that aren’t feasible in a primary care setting, or won’t be commercially successful because no one is willing to pay for them, and to find out what technology primary care doctors need.
One of about a dozen research projects in the PCI Lab’s current portfolio is a needs assessment for Alere. The PCI Lab is helping the company evaluate how doctors and patients might respond to a point-of-care test that could determine whether a patient with symptoms of a cold has a viral or bacterial infection—information that could help primary care doctors more rapidly prescribe antibiotics when appropriate. The PCI Lab’s work could help the company determine whether it’s worth pursuing FDA approval for the test.
“At the other end of the spectrum we’ve helped some very small companies to figure out would their new device be used, who would use it, why would they use it, and what would it replace, how would the billing work for it, would it be reimbursed,” Thompson says. “So these very practical things that to us seem to be the difference between a product having no hope in the market versus a product that’s got a far greater chance of commercial success, and making a difference.”
The PCI Lab, which has a budget of about $3 million from industry, federal agencies, and the UW itself, is leveraging a research network of some 50 clinics across the five-state region (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho) served by the UW School of Medicine.
“Often what new technology companies lack is that direct connection to the providers and the clinics, and that’s exactly what we can provide,” Thompson says.
Other projects include studying the use of mobile phone-based health tools in developing countries; exploring potential uses of hand-held ultrasound in family medicine practices; and testing a self-serve blood pressure kiosk that patients use in the waiting area after checking in, rather than having their blood pressure checked by a nurse or medical assistant in the exam room.
The PCI Lab is also equipped to assist companies working on new health IT systems, for example. “We’re very well versed in evaluating whether it’s working or not,” says Bianca Kiyoe Frogner, an associate professor and health economist in the family medicine department and director of the UW’s Center for Health Workforce Studies. “We have ideas on what those metrics should be, and we’re getting more feedback on what physicians are finding to be the most useful metric to know whether or not a product is working.”
The lab can help with expertise in other areas, too, such as assessing whether healthcare workers have the right skills to implement a new technology and, importantly, whether Medicare or private insurance companies are likely to reimburse for it.
That kind of information, whether it be for a piece of software or a new diagnostic test, is invaluable to entrepreneurs trying to find their way through the byzantine healthcare system, says Rob Arnold, an advisor to healthcare innovators and an Entrepreneur in Residence at the UW’s commercialization and innovation transfer office, CoMotion, which supports the PCI Lab both financially and with intellectual property and licensing agreements.
“Healthcare has an extremely high bar for accepting new innovation so having high quality data from a trusted testing center matters a lot,” Arnold says.