Highmark, CMU announce details of health collaboration

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With an eye toward bringing innovation to the nation's health care system, Highmark Inc. will invest $11 million over the next two years in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University to look for ways to make quality health care simpler, less expensive and more accessible.

The partnership will bring together Pittsburgh insurer Highmark's wealth of health claims data with CMU's research and technological expertise in computer science and data mining to examine "how services are used and how those services may be deployed more efficiently and more effectively," said CMU Provost Mark Kamlet.

The goal, he added, is that the partnership "will have a positive impact on health care, not only in Western Pennsylvania but throughout the entire United States."

Stephen Foreman, associate professor of health care administration at Robert Morris University, said Monday the collaboration could be significant. "Generally, health insurers are fairly insular and they don't think academia can do much for them, so I think what Highmark is doing is terrific.

"Personally, I think there is a lot to be gained from data mining. If they can link electronic medical records with claims data, they could identify providers that produce good outcomes with fewer resources, and look deep into the data to find out why and how."

The agreement, which does not include any public funding, creates the Disruptive Health Technology Institute at CMU under the direction of Alan Russell, who was founding director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh for 10 years before leaving in 2011.

It also gives an added dimension to Highmark's provider arm, Allegheny Health Network, which the insurer christened earlier this year to compete with market leader UPMC.

One of the goals of Highmark's Allegheny Health provider network, said Highmark President and CEO William Winkenwerder Jr., is to offer different options and choices for people in the region and to provide care based on the best science and information.

"We believe CMU is the perfect environment where health care innovation can be conceived," he said.

Mr. Russell said the plan is to launch seven separate projects by Aug. 1, each of them already close to producing results and designed with speed in mind.

One example he cited would be finding ways improving the technology used in colonoscopies to reduce the number of missed polyps.

Other areas they will focus on include chronic disease management, infection prevention, behavior change and medical diagnostics.

During a media briefing Monday, Mr. Kamlet said the institute will require some additional space on campus but will initially use existing staff.

Although the agreement is for two years, he added, the hope is the partnership will continue long after that. "We would love to grow and prosper," he said.

The genesis of the "disruptive" health technology initiative -- that is, an initiative to rethink and "disrupt" traditional approaches to providing health care -- took seed a year ago when Mr. Russell was named Highmark Distinguished Career professor at CMU's Institute for Complex Engineered Systems.

Much as mobile phones disrupted traditional telecommunications, "One of the major thrusts is to change the approach and delivery to make sure that care is delivered in the right way, in the right place, at the right time," said Mr. Russell.

After many years of resisting dramatic innovations, he added, "if ever there was an industry that was in need of disruption, it is health care."

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Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963. First Published June 24, 2013 11:15 AM


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